Sponsored By

Closing the Loop: Fostering Communication In Single Player Games

Game writer and designer Jordan (Telltale's Sam & Max, Strongbad) visits ways in which games interact with the player narratively and offers a new way of looking at player interaction with story in our medium.

Chuck Jordan, Blogger

February 1, 2011

17 Min Read

[Game writer and designer Chuck Jordan (Telltale's Sam & Max, Strongbad) visits ways in which games interact with the player narratively and offers a new way of looking at player interaction with story in our medium.]

As game developers continue to define how video games can be used for storytelling, the predominant challenge is the tension between story -- the developer's predetermined narrative -- and gameplay -- the player's interaction with the game. A slightly different way of framing the problem is not as the tension between story and gameplay, but as the tension between video games as a medium and video games as an activity.

An Inconvenient Tetromino

Imagine a continuum with An Inconvenient Truth at one extreme and Tetris at the other. One is completely literal: it exists solely to convey an explicit message from the creator to the audience. The other is completely abstract: it has no message, but exists solely to provide an environment in which the audience can play. One is media; the other is activity.

Any video game -- or for that matter, any film, book, television program, album, dance performance, any creative work -- can be placed somewhere along that continuum, based on a single criterion: "What, if anything, is this work trying to communicate?"

As thought experiments go, this one is admittedly pretty facile, but it's useful for a few reasons:

First, it places no value judgment on either extreme. Discussions about video game content (as opposed to video game mechanics) are often filled with loaded terms like fun and meaning.

These can often derail the discussion into unproductive tangents as people defend ideas that were never under attack: "Games don't have to mean anything!" "Gameplay is meaning!" "Focusing on 'fun' above all else is infantilizing the medium!"

It also avoids the tendency to dismiss abstract, "casual" games as more shallow than storytelling games; or, conversely, to claim that purity of abstract gameplay is of the utmost importance, and that anyone who wants to make a more linear, storytelling game should instead be making movies.

Second, it avoids making a distinction between story and gameplay. Focusing on the overall message -- instead of story as set dressing for a game, or shallow gameplay that's bolstered by an interesting story -- means treating both components as parts of a common whole.

Most of all, it acknowledges the significance of communication in game design, not just presentation. If a video game developer chooses to tell a story with her game, then she's placed her project towards the "media" end of the continuum. She has to think about what ideas the game is trying to communicate.

Feedback Loop

There tends to be a knee-jerk revulsion to any classification of games as media, or the discussion of games as being primarily story-driven. The objection is that doing so somehow violates the purity and value of game design for its own sake.

But using video games as a storytelling medium doesn't trivialize game design, any more than using films to tell stories trivializes the arts of cinematography or film editing. Any artist choosing a medium has a responsibility to determine what's unique about that medium, and how to use the medium to its fullest potential.

The unique aspect of video games as a medium is, of course, their interactivity. They provide ongoing, immediate, systematic, rules-based, bidirectional communication between the creator and the audience. This is also known as "gameplay."

When we think about the process of narrative game design in this way, the typical distinction between story and gameplay seems even more out of place. It makes little sense to draw a line separating "thinking" from "doing," or "developer's narrative" versus "player's narrative." That would imply the creator and audience are speaking entirely different languages, engaged in completely separate activities that only occasionally intersect at cutscenes.

But cutscenes and scripted events aren't the narrative. The entire game is the narrative, and the story is told via the one thing that makes the medium unique: gameplay. The objective of the game is to get to the end of the story, and the rules of the game are the constraints on the player's character(s). Cutscenes and scripted events introduce or clarify the rules: this character is an obstacle, this path is no longer accessible, this crystal shard of darkest magick is now an objective.

It's not a dramatic redefinition, but a subtle shift in philosophy. It's not the case that the developer's engaged in telling a story while the player's engaged in an activity; it's the case that they're both collaborating in the process of telling a story.

And the language of the storytelling isn't what we've borrowed from traditional media -- dialogue, cinematography, set design, etc. -- but the language of gameplay, that bidirectional communication between developer and player.

The developer presents a new rule or new scenario, the player provides some input, and the game responds. That cycle of input and feedback is the most fundamental element of video game communication, it's what makes interactive entertainment unique among storytelling media, and it's how video game stories provide all their meaning to the player.

It's also positioned halfway between the extremes of storytelling game design: traditional narrative vs. systematic game mechanics, linearity and control vs. open-endedness and unpredictability, art vs. science, innate talent vs. rigorous study, subjectivity vs. objectivity, intuition vs. observation.

So it's useful simply to look at individual moments when a video game resonates with the player on a level that's only possible in the medium of interactive entertainment. How do games transcend the mode of two independent monologues, the developer's voice and the player's voice? How does a game close the loop of communication from player to developer and then back to the player?


The most obvious and immediately compelling way to close the loop, from Choose Your Own Adventure books all the way to Mass Effect, is to provide a branching narrative based on the player's choices at key story moments. The player's actions have an immediate, significant effect on the course of the story.

The most obvious disadvantage to branching narratives is a purely practical one: they're expensive and time consuming. Even a simple, binary good/evil choice can double the number of key scenes that need to be produced, and more subtle options will increase development time even more. As budgets get larger, it becomes more difficult to justify spending money on content that, by design, a large part of the audience will never see.

For as long as people have been making video games, there's been the idea that the problems of branching narratives are simply limitations of the current technology.

The industry's holy grail -- or more accurately, perpetual motion engine -- has been the realization of a storytelling engine that can take a finite amount of content and intelligently and satisfyingly generate an infinite number of available choices for the player.

But if we're looking at video games as communication between developers and players, is a storytelling engine really the inevitable and most desirable end goal? The player would be receiving immediate feedback for any choice he happens to make, but would he still be engaged in a conversation with the developer?

While designing puzzles for adventure games for Sam & Max or Strong Bad episodes, my goal was to reproduce for the player the experience of planning the game in the writers' room. We often talk about "a-ha" moments when playing adventure games, but there are just as many that come up while designing them.

The process of designing a story-based adventure game is similar to the process of playing one -- the story progresses to a certain point, and everyone in the room tries to come up with the funniest, most interesting, or most satisfying way to advance to the next story moment.

That's not necessarily the best or most logical way to advance, but the one that makes everyone in the room say, "Yes! That's perfect!" Giving the player the option to come up with any solution he can think of isn't necessarily the goal. In fact, there've been several times that a player suggested a solution on the forums or during a playtest that was much more interesting or logical than the one we'd included in the game.

But the ideal wasn't simply to empower the player, but to share a moment with the player -- the exact moment when all the pieces finally fit together, the joke hits the best punch line, the attention to continuity pays off, and the story makes sense (or in the case of Sam & Max, close enough).

As developers continue to pursue the goal of building holodecks, open-ended environments that put players in complete control of the story, they need to make sure that the sense of communication isn't lost. Otherwise, they're not empowering the player, but simply locking him inside an echo chamber where he's only speaking to himself.


Player agency is even more fundamental to video games than the concept of player choice. Even when the player's actions don't directly result in changing the course of the story, the experience of driving the narrative forward can make the story resonate in a way that traditional media can't duplicate.

The Half-Life series has been built on the concept of player agency from the first moment of the tram ride through Black Mesa. Absolutely nothing happens that isn't directly witnessed by Gordon Freeman, and without his assistance, power cables across the world remain unplugged and big red launch buttons remain unpushed.

Ostensibly, the goal is complete immersion. But the player is never completely immersed in the story or role-playing as Gordon Freeman, mostly because the character is something of a cipher. Still, the player is immersed in the storytelling. He becomes more intimately familiar with the details of the environment and the spatial relationships between key locations. He's more conscious of the passage of time and the tension that results from time pressure.

In Half-Life 2 Episode 2, there's a scene in which Freeman and Alyx Vance watch through binoculars as a convoy of striders and other Combine vehicles cross a bridge. There's no player choice involved; everyone playing the game will witness this scene. But when compared to a similar scene in the recent War of the Worlds remake, the difference that comes from player agency becomes clear. There's a greater sense of presence and immediacy that doesn't come across in a film.

The risk for game developers is overestimating the value of agency, or the over-reliance on empty interactivity as a substitute for genuine experience. An over-used trick in writing adventure game dialogue is to break up expository sequences with a list of "options" for the player to choose, which all go to the same branch.

It's intended to break up the monotony of a sequence by pulling the player back into the interaction, but can actually have the opposite effect when used too often. The player becomes even more aware that his choices have no real effect on the outcome, and the interaction seems even more artificial.

There's also a risk of over-relying on immersion to the point of distraction. The sci-fi horror game Dead Space puts considerable effort into making the user interface seamless, with a game world explanation for every map, heads-up display, or panel the player interacts with.

This actually causes the interface to draw more attention to itself, however, since most players have dealt with separate in-game UIs enough to accept them without explanation.

Considering the game as dialogue between player and developer, it's important for developers to think of agency and immersion as tools for communication instead of just flourishes.

What idea or feeling does the game convey by giving control to the player at this point? Is it a meaningful interaction, or does it simply give the player buttons to mash during an otherwise non-interactive sequence?


One of the most effective uses of player agency is to foster a sense of empathy for the player's avatar or other characters in the narrative. The player's forced to consider the consequences of his actions, even if those actions are predetermined by the developer and not subject to a branching narrative. This can convey an idea or a concept more subtly and persuasively than any didactic cutscene, because the player gradually becomes more aware of his role in the narrative.

In the game Ico, a core game mechanic is holding the princess's hand to guide her through obstacles. The developers seamlessly and wordlessly instill in the player a sense of attachment and protectiveness, more effectively than any cutscene would be able. Valve accomplished something similar on a smaller scale with Portal, simply by putting a heart on the Weighted Companion Cube.

Shadow of the Colossus took this concept even further by placing the player into a more morally ambiguous situation. The basic structure of the game is completely conventional: to save a princess, the player has to defeat an increasingly difficult series of bosses. But the presentation of the game shifts the player's experience from a standard adventure to a study on loss, mourning, and inevitability.

Although no text or dialogue makes it explicit, the colossi are transformed from standard video game monsters to majestic, even noble creatures. Player choice isn't involved -- the player has no real choice other than to stop playing the game -- but the game still communicates the idea that all of the player's actions have consequence. Over time, he starts to feel guilty for killing these ultimately peaceful creatures, even while he's aware that he can't stop.

That idea of choice, inevitability, and consequence, was also an important part of BioShock. The game ostensibly put its focus on a series of binary good/evil choices -- save or harvest the Little Sisters -- each with its own dedicated controller button and branching final cutscene.

But the player's relationship with the Big Daddies was much more subtle. Whether the player chose to save or harvest the Little Sisters, he was forced to first kill each Big Daddy. And these characters were lumbering creatures pacing the floors of Rapture, singing whale song, doing no harm to the player but existing only to protect the little girl in their care.

Many players killed them without a second thought; even if they weren't necessary to complete the game, the fights against the Big Daddies were the game's most interesting set pieces. It's only later in the game, after witnessing a pivotal story moment about the illusion of choice, that the player's forced to consider what he's been doing over the course of the game. He sees how the Big Daddies are created and, to drive home the sense of empathy, forced to become one himself.


The notion of making content specifically relevant to individuals in the audience is obviously not unique to video games, but it is something that's often overlooked. So much of game development is devoted to world-building and immersion that developers either neglect to reach out of the game world and address the player directly, or they have no interest in it.

One of my own most memorable experiences while playing a video game, the type of moment that is only possible in interactive entertainment, was while playing Sega's Seaman on the Dreamcast.

After my pet Seaman had reached a certain stage of maturity, he'd started asking me personal questions to get to know me better. For those unfamiliar with the game, it shipped with a microphone attachment and used voice recognition to allow the player to speak to the Seaman. At the beginning of one session, mine casually asked me what my favorite movie was.

I was aware that the voice recognition in the game wasn't completely perfect, but the developers did an excellent job of giving the player a second chance in case the first attempt wasn't recognized.

In response to the question about my favorite movie, I decided I'd first try with my actual favorite, and then in case it wasn't recognized, fall back to the more obvious answer of Star Wars.

I answered "Miller's Crossing." The Seaman's eyes lit up, and he responded, "Ah, so you're a Coen Brothers fan! I bet you and your friends just sit together and quote lines from Raising Arizona all day long." I dropped the controller and cautiously backed away from the screen.

Seaman will be primarily remembered for its bizarre concept and dedication to creating a completely alternate reality. But choosing Jellyvision to do its English language translation was the perfect complement to the original, because of that studio's experience making unconventional and contemporary content with the You Don't Know Jack series.

Choosing such an eerily relevant response broke through the bizarre premise of the game, simultaneously grounding it and also making it shockingly immersive. For a moment, I was no longer using unpredictable technology to talk to a 3D model and a decision tree of responses; I was being studied by a creature who knew me all too well.

When this kind of breaking the fourth wall works, it works astonishingly well. The risk, of course, is sacrificing the universality of the game. A player who had an answer not in the game's database would not have received a response that seemed so directly targeted at him. I also became acutely aware of the presence of the game's writers and translators, communicating with them instead of the character they'd tried to create.

Environmental Details

Game developers have multiple channels of communication available, and not every idea expressed by a game needs to happen in a cutscene. More subtle environmental cues can reinforce the ideas that are coming across through the "main" channel, or simply reinforce the notion of communication with the game's developers.

In Half-Life 2, the player frequently encounters an area with an environmental obstacle instead of a group of enemies to fight. Freeman has to build a ramp to get his speedboat out of a reservoir, or manipulate an elevator to reach a higher level. These have the potential of breaking the player out of the storytelling and putting him back into the mindset of playing a video game. He's no longer a physicist fighting off an alien occupation; he's a guy solving video game puzzles.

But almost all of these areas have a subtle environmental element in the form of a lambda symbol painted somewhere nearby. These bring the fiction back into play -- this isn't simply a puzzle left by the game developers for the player; they're tools left by the resistance to help Freeman past an obstacle.

They also serve as a subtle reminder that a type of communication is taking place between the developer and the player. They remind the player that there is an ideal solution to this obstacle; he hasn't been simply dumped into a completely open game world and left to his own devices. It's not an open-ended simulation, but a carefully constructed experience.

Closing the Loop

This is obviously not an exhaustive list. The intention isn't to define a set of all the possible methods game developers can use to communicate with players, but to encourage a subtle shift in philosophy.

When we think about story-driven games, either making them or playing them, we continue to think of them as combinations of two distinct things: the storytelling techniques of traditional media and the more rigorous, systematic mechanics of game studies. We have the potential for deeper stories and more complex storytelling if we instead look at the story and gameplay as two parts of the same dialogue.

All of us have our favorite moments in video games, the moments when we've experienced something that no other medium can replicate. We all know what games are capable of, even if we can't quite articulate it. It's likely that those moments weren't just the result of an effective cinematic, or thoughtful level design, or a rigorously balanced core game mechanic, but were the result of a feeling of genuine connection between ourselves and the people who created the world for us to play in.

Read more about:


About the Author(s)

Chuck Jordan


Chuck Jordan is an independent game developer currently working on projects under the name Spectre Collie, LLC. He has worked on adventure and simulation games for LucasArts, Maxis, and most recently Telltale Games as writer and game designer on the Sam & Max series and Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People. More of his writing on storytelling in video games is available at http://www.spectrecollie.com/archives/category/video games/storytelling

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like