For years, I’ve told friends and colleagues that game stories suck. A perspective that most can relate to, but only as an intellectual topic far from practical reality. People nod their heads, then happily play and continue making story-driven games anyway.
I believe that there’s room for a discussion about game story, what it means, and what would make it more unique to the medium. Make it leverage the medium. I hope that the award-guzzling juggernauts of today will be the dinosaurs of tomorrow, so we can dig up their narrative bones and discuss their extinction.
There will always be room for interactive fiction, of course. There's nothing wrong with you if you like a good story told in a compelling way. But the heart of every game should be real-time engagement. Something no other medium can provide!
I hope future video game awards are handed not to games that mimic Hollywood, but to games that take interaction and player experience seriously. I want to put the proverbial disk in its tray and be blown away. Immersed and entertained, but most of all surprised. I don’t want to play “yet another” of anything, ever again.
Just recently, the idea came to me to explain what I really mean when I say game stories suck, and after working on this idea for some time, I realised it’s not quite as simple as “game stories suck.” They do suck, but the reasons are hard to discuss, because most people can’t separate story from plot or narrative from exposition. So instead of just ranting and bashing people’s favourite games - a surefire way to put people on the defensive - I did some digging. At first, I asked a simple question.
What does game story mean?
Of course, if you ask a question like that, you get as many answers as there’s people. It’s hard to pinpoint what story means in games or even what it means in one game or to one player. There’s not enough of a common ground. So it’s better to ask the question in another way, unless you’re extremely fond of rants.
What’s your favourite game story and why is it your favourite?
What came out of this, isolated mostly to my own circle of friends and acquaintances, was extremely interesting. I noted that most people didn’t consider gameplay part of the story - no favourite stories were about headshots or goomba stomping. Stories people remembered were largely about characters, dialogue or minor events tied to a predetermined narrative.
Another thing that came out of it was confusion. Answers threw around words like narrative, plot, and story quite recklessly, and many times, the subject matter of the game seemed more relevant to the experience of the game’s quality than the actual story that was told. In other words, someone who really likes high fantasy worlds or zombie survival tends to gravitate towards games in such worlds and remember their stories more fondly.
Additionally, people who liked playing a game remembered the story more fondly than it may have deserved. Even according to themselves. Or people could reminisce and admit that nostalgia was probably getting the better of them, because the best story they could remember was just that - a memory. Often from a game they played as kids.
None of this comes as any real shock, of course. It’s just very interesting that games have been around for some time by now, and there’s still nothing even close to a common jargon or even a consensus on a single word, like story. Unlike film or television, games are very poorly defined even by the people making them. Maybe even especially among the people making them.
In the end, trying to analyse what I heard as objectively as possible, I came up with two separate modes of storytelling in games that seem to dominate how video game storytelling is done today. Each mode has its own set of tools, and most game titles borrow tools from both modes. The biggest difference is where the focus lies.
Part I - Passive Observation
When people think about game story, they almost always separate it from gameplay. Replies like, “I liked the story, but the game wasn’t very fun,” or vice versa, were not at all uncommon. I’m not going to use concrete examples, because quality is very subjective and criticism against specific titles invites straw man argumentation. But looking at the major blockbusters of the last few years, very few games break this norm.
Because it’s so widely used, there are countless tools in the toolbox of story separation, or what’s often known as “cinematic gameplay.” The only thing in common between all these techniques is that they feed the story to the player, while the player can do nothing at all, or very little, to interact with the game. It’s mostly about the designers or writers telling a story to the player.
Because it forces the player to be passive, I call this mode of game storytelling passive observation. The player is forced to observe the game’s story with no influence on the outcome and the player’s avatar in the game is mostly a puppet to that storytelling.
In Part I, I’ll deal with the techniques used in passive observation games, some of which most games rely on today.
Part II - Interactive Observation
Games that focus more on the interaction than on the storytelling typically provide the story without breaking interaction, or parcelled out as eye candy between longer stretches of gameplay. The player is still an observer, because the story is predefined, but the player is an active observer that has to search for and interact with the story to see it through.
What separates this mode from passive observation is that the experience remains largely interactive. Another element is that not all of the story has to be experienced during a single playthrough of the game. The player is often free to opt out or simply bypass bits of story.
In Part II, techniques used in interactive observation games are illustrated, and you can see how the basis for most interactive observation is mechanical and structural repetition.
Part III - Experiential Storytelling
An experiential story isn’t told. Rather, the player is let loose in a setting where the rules are defined and the game then reacts to the player’s actions. The player will have to take the consequences, thereby experiencing her own story by interacting with the game.
Part III explores what can be learned from the two main modes and how they don't cope all that well with interaction. It goes on to argue what elements that constitute stories in games and how games could be built to leverage those elements rather than work against them.
It concludes with a ten-point “manifesto” of guidelines to consider when you try to build an experiential story. These guidelines are the punchline of this lengthy rant and a reward for everyone who makes it through to the end!
PART I: PASSIVE OBSERVATION
By definition, “narrative” communicates a sequence of events directly to a second party. A reader, listener or other observer. Normally, C follows B follows A, but this isn’t strictly necessary. Even out-of-sequence events are narrated linearly. Think Pulp Fiction or Memento.
Screenplays are written in narrative form, because it closely resembles how scenes are shown to a viewer of the finished film. It makes lots of sense in lots of ways, not least of all to the structure of the production work.
Take a look at the following cult classic, as an illustration. If you don’t recognise it, you can stop reading and return to whichever planet you came from (especially if that planet is LV-426).
THE LIGHTS GO OUT. Everyone stops in the sudden darkness, realizing instinctively it is a new escalation in the struggle. Hicks looks at the board. Everything is out. Doors. Video screens.
They cut the power.
What do you mean, they cut the power? How could they cut the power, man? They’re animals.
Ripley picks up her rifle and thumbs off the safety.
Newt! Stay close.
(to the others)
Let’s get some trackers going.
Come on, get moving. Gorman, watch Burke.
Hudson and Vasques pick up their scanners and move to the door. Vasquez has to slide it open manually on its track.
You can all confirm that the scene plays out exactly as written. It can do this because film is a linear medium. One frame comes after the other and can be planned, scouted, recorded, post-produced, packaged and sold, all off the pages of the screenplay. This is not to say that the screenplay doesn’t keep changing during filming, but process and product stay linear. The goal is always to reproduce the screenplay in moving pictures.
Films always use this structure, and they entertain us largely because of the narrative nature of their medium.
But many of the tricks used in films have evolved over the course of the last 100 years or so, and have served to make the narrative language of films innate to most of us. We know that a shot of a diner’s exterior followed by people having lunch means we’ve moved inside the diner, or that opposite-angle cuts of people talking is a conversation. We even know that hazy fog effects or sepia tones show distant memories or dreams, and we can discern which from context. We learn all these things by growing up with screen media.
In the same way, if two people have a long argument over whether to bring a gun to an encounter, and the argument is punctuated by one of the characters glancing at the gun locker before the next scene, we know that one of the characters took the gun no matter what. There’s no need for a dialogue line that explains this, because we can read facial expressions and body language. Such things we learn simply by being human.
Furthermore, the reason we yell for victims in the making to turn on the lights, or feel sad when a character’s love interest is killed. It’s all about empathy. We are observing the reactions of real people (the actors), applying our own context, and the result is that we can feel what the characters feel. We can understand what a scene conveys, and we can empathise. Or we laugh and mock the poor acting, if we don’t buy into the empathic message or don’t find it plausible enough.
Screen media also employs tropes that everyone can recognise. The brat, the playboy, the femme fatale, the outcast, the nerd; or spatial tropes, like the suburb, the ranch or even the family sedan. No matter which particular trope that’s used, or how muddled it gets with the rest of the presentation, it’s used for the sake of piggy-backing our expectations and explaining context with a minimum of exposition. Just like glances at gun cupboards, this is all for the sake of empowering the aforementioned empathy and ensuring that the message is picked up by a wider audience.
Of course, the tropes can change down the road, with added depth or even a complete reversal of character as a dramatic plot twist. But techniques for establishing character is something that Hollywood has developed almost to perfection through the years.
These are all simplified examples of why film works best showing and not telling. This is opposed to written fiction, or even the screenplay itself, where everything has to be told directly and in sequence. But all of them use narration out of form.
The point here is that the techniques used to narrate in linear media are empowered by the media. Some of the techniques are entirely cultural, which is why some Asian or Bollywood productions may seem alien to those among us who have consumed Hollywood products since before we could walk. But even with a different set of tropes, the techniques are still the same.
In game land, most story-heavy games use the same narrative techniques as linear media. In fact, many reviewers and gamers use the term narrative to describe a game’s plot. Not to mention that a lot of games are written in screenplay form and consequently enforce an artificial linearity even through production.
But the main difference between games and most other media is interactivity. Things happen when you push a button, swipe your finger or otherwise interact with the game. If you want to tell a linear story this means the player can mess things up by looking in the wrong direction, going to the wrong place, jumping up and down, etc. This makes it really hard to use subtle film techniques.
Because of this reluctance of the player to be a good listener, games that narrate must force the player to listen. The interaction itself becomes a problem, as the methods used haven’t been developed with interaction in mind.
For example, how do you make an establishing shot if the user is picking through the trash rather than looking at the diner sign, and how do you present an engaging conversation if the player is shooting a machine gun into a nearby wall while laughing hysterically?
To solve this, passive observation games employ a large subset of tools that disable interaction, partially or entirely. These tools are what make it possible to narrate.
In A Theory of Fun, Raph Koster refers to this as “frustrated director’s syndrome,” where the makers of the game are trying very hard to make a film and not a game. In marketing speak, this is usually sold as a cinematic experience.
But films are perfectly suited to linear storytelling. Games are not.
PASSIVE OBSERVATION TECHNIQUES
Games become cinematic by forcing the player to listen, watch or experience closely directed sequences. It can be by using full-motion video, in-game cutscenes or other means, but the end result is that the player’s ability to interact is limited or completely disabled.
The following are examples of such techniques that you will most likely have come across many times.
Story exposition is when the game tells you what happened before, who a character is or where something is happening. It can also be a longer sequence that shows details relevant later in the story, or a cutscene shown during the loading of a new level, to explain where the player’s character is going. It serves to frame the player’s activities within the larger context of the story.
Scene direction is more specific to games and is when the camera pans all the puzzle pieces, shows you where the exit door is, zooms in on the boss’ weak spot, or the flashing green button. Any cutscene used to tell you where to go or what to do - that’s scene direction.
Another type of cutscene used in many games is a scene narration cutscene. It’s when the game tells you what kind of B happens after A. When you pull a lever and a cutscene shows you a door opening, or when a cutscene shows you that reinforcements are arriving. Those are examples of narration cutscenes.
A quick-time event (QTE) is an action that you must perform within a small time frame as a reaction to on-screen direction. It can be the flashing image of a button to press. The purpose of these events is to introduce minor interaction into a non-interactive sequence or to direct the player into performing a very specific action at a specific time. The intention can also be more empathic. I.e., to make the player feel part of something that the writers/designers want to tell.
For some games, predetermined camera positioning is part of the design, but many games that normally allow full camera control may arbitrarily force the camera to look at specific points of interest. This is always done so that the player doesn’t miss what’s going on, or as an alternative to scene direction, but it takes full control over the camera in order to do so.
Dialogue-heavy games with multiple characters will often halt gameplay by means of an artificial obstacle that the player or a game character has to remove before the game progresses. The obstacle can sometimes take the shape of a long stretch of empty road or corridor scaled to the length of the conversation, or even just a door that is locked and then unlocks when the conversation is over. The difference between forced staging and direct camera control is that forced staging rarely modifies what the player can do. It’s more akin to locking the player in a room and conveying the message before the door opens again.
Sometimes a game’s story wants to tell you of a daring escape, an aerial dogfight, or seat you in a chair while a character speaks to you. Such a section can be on rails or entirely static, but always removes much or all of your control. The intention is to walk you through a very specific experience. It’s not a cutscene per se, because it still keeps the perspective intact.
Verbal or Written Directions
Verbal directions are spoken instructions, like “go there” or “fetch that.” Written directions are often more obtuse, taking up central screen space or even the whole screen area while also disabling interaction. Using military or role-playing terminology sometimes tries to put the directions in context (objective, quest, etc.).
Visual directions are in-game waypoint graphics and other cues that show you clearly where to go. You have no real decision in the matter, and a side-effect is often that you play the graphics and not the game. In other words, asking yourself “where’s the next waypoint?” rather than searching for the way ahead.
Dialogue trees are a mainstay of games since the first text adventures. Most of the time, individual dialogue trees have a predetermined plot outcome that must be set in motion before the dialogue is considered “done” by the system. Even if the phrasing might change, you’ll simply have to keep walking through the dialogue tree until you’ve heard all you can hear or found the right alternative to progress further. What all dialogue trees have in common is that they’re only as interactive as the amount of content allows and therefore extremely linear.
Sometimes, when you don’t do what you’re supposed to, a game character or in-game element will keep reiterating the same directions over and over. It can be in a slightly modified form, but it will always reiterate the same message. More often than not, this is caused by a certain sequence of the directed experience having factors that are not immediately obvious, and instead of risking much feared player frustration, the game keeps telling the player what to do until it’s done.
A technical solution to when players don’t follow the narrative is to simply reset the game to the point of divergence. This usually takes the shape of reloading a previous checkpoint somewhere and can happen if you get detected when you’re not supposed to, if you die when you’re not supposed to, or if you shoot someone you’re not supposed to. You then have to keep retrying until you do as you’re supposed to.
Linear media excels at telling stories that can make us happy, sad, angry, amazed, or emotional in various other ways. They make us empathise, sympathise; feel love and hate. A good book will put us in the dorm with Harry Potter and a good film will make us feel like the situation is desperate because the animals just cut the power. This is what linear media is.
But when games try to do the same thing, using the same established methods, they must force the player to become a passive observer and can never meet expectations of interaction. It also never has the same effect, sometimes even for technical reasons or due to uncanny valley.
What’s even worse is that players will often treat the story and the game as two entirely separate experiences, arguably because one uses techniques we know from screen media and the other lets you press buttons.
PART II: INTERACTIVE OBSERVATION
The typical game, large or small, is based on repetition. Simple actions that the user does over and over. Pointing and clicking are the two things you constantly do in every PC game, for example. No matter how the scenes are set up or what the context may be, you’re still basically pointing and clicking your way through the game.
In a puzzle game, we use the mechanics to solve riddles. In a strategy game, the repetition is mechanical but the goals are more long-term and often connected to effects that are emergent based on the interaction rather than consequences of the interaction directly. In the end, all of these examples are still extremely repetitive in the second-to-second interaction.
Repetition is good for psychological reasons. Our brains are wired in such a way that repetition improves our skills and fires our brain’s reward centers. If we can beat the tough challenges, it stimulates us.
Because of this, many games will reuse the same mechanics indefinitely and change the impression of the mechanics along the way, rather than changing or adding new mechanics. New effects, different visual representations, larger explosions, more weapons, and of course: telling new stories. The simpler the gameplay is, the more content can be pushed into the game. You’re still essentially pointing and clicking.
This is what many game developers do today. They build gameplay based on what games have done before - maybe adding some small thing along the way - and then focus most of their effort on narrative. Sometimes, this puts us back at Part I, enforcing passive observation. At other times, gameplay has the front row and the story is then there to find, but it’s up to the player to find it. The player might even miss parts of it, depending on how it’s played, but the start and end points are the only points that are defined. The illusion of choice makes it feel less forced.
This last case is interactive observation. The key element in interactive observation is interaction. But what defines this interaction, beyond repetition?
On the highest level, this is how dictionaries define video games:
“A video game is an electronic game that involves human interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device.”
“An electronic game in which players control images on a television or computer screen.”
“A game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a monitor or other display.”
This textbook definition is all fine. But people can easily throw in the DVD remote or even just the On/Off switch on a TV set here. A physical interaction that shows you a result on a screen. Granted, they won’t get many friends that way, but it’s a valid contradiction nonetheless.
So to expand the definition of a video game, we can refer to what Sid Meier said, which is probably one of the most widely quoted definitions of video games out there.
“A game is a series of interesting choices.”
Now, in this form - which is the form you’ll most often come across in game design literature - it’s still not much better than before. It can be an interesting choice to press Skip whenever you see Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. That doesn’t really make it a game, because the experience is defined - you’re just choosing to ignore parts of it.
Instead, there’s a wider perspective you can add to this, explained by Andrew Rollings and Dave Morris in their book, Game Architecture and Design:
In an interesting choice:
- no single option is clearly better than the other options,
- the options are not equally attractive,
- and the player must be able to make an informed choice.
These three caveats make all the difference.
In game theory, people sometimes talk about dominant strategies, meaning a strategy that’s always superior to all others. Can’t have those, or Sid Meier’s concept of an interesting choice is immediately gone as the dominant strategy would always be picked. You also can’t keep information away from the player in such a way that the game becomes arbitrary and that there’s no way of knowing what difference a choice makes. For example, if you choose the good or the evil branch in a dialogue, you rarely know what the outcome will be until after you see it.
Sid Meier’s definition paired with its wider explanation is what best suits my own image of video games. It also helps get the point across, because it’s almost impossible for the three caveats to coexist with a predefined narrative. If you’re a passive observer, there is very little room for any choices at all. Interesting or otherwise.
To illustrate interactive observation, let’s think of an aquarium for a second. The player is a fish and somewhere in that space there’s a skull and a treasure chest.
The fish can swim anywhere, but will eventually end up at the skull or treasure chest and can never go outside the boundaries of the glass. The story of the skull or the treasure chest will always be the same, just not always in the same order. Those are the things the player is observing. The interaction is then included at every turn in this fiction. The fish will have to avoid sharks, fight against evil sea horses, and visit the peg-legged swordfish to barter for upgraded squarepants.
Whether there’s one or many elements of interaction isn’t important, what’s important is that the focus is not on the story but on what the player is doing in-between rounds of storytelling and that the latter is brought into the mix as a result of player activity. When the player goes to the treasure chest, it’ll feel like a choice and not like someone telling the player to go there.
If you’re playing an open-world game, you can typically explore the world’s bubbles of content the way you see fit. To stroll into a hidden dungeon deep in the woods, or to kill a random stranger for bumping into your car. These things have dynamic consequences in the simulation. The dungeon might be filled with angry wolves once you get there, or your intended victim a gang member that pulls a gun on you or even steals your car. At these times, the experience remains active all the time and you have to deal with the situations with none of the passive tools there to force your hand.
Stealth games often fall into this category as well, as do many puzzle games. In a stealth game, the stage is set and the consequences for raising the alarm are known. How you handle the situation is then up to you. In a puzzle game, the stage is also set, and there is an outcome you must reach in order to solve the puzzle. But how you reach that outcome is up to you.
Later, when you launch a dialogue tree, jump into cutscene, finish the level or solve the puzzle, you’re often thrown back into narration land and you become the observer once more.
INTERACTIVE OBSERVATION TECHNIQUES
But it’s not just the player’s alter ego that needs to be thought through. The setting and environment of the game also requires Shandification, allowing players to “cheerfully surrender to every distraction [they] come across.” This is what makes the story experiential. Having it cope with the whims of an experimentally aligned player.
For example, the terrible consequences of being killed paired with the uncertainties of human interaction has made DayZ an experience unlike most other. When my own character was shot and killed as I tried to run away from a group of malevolent players, that was one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had in a game. No script, no direction. Just dynamic interaction between players, in a very harsh world of desperate survival.
Similarly, a game like Minecraft, with few inherent goals and no story at all, has attracted a massive following thanks to its open nature and positive outlook on experimentation. Without goals, people invent goals. Without narrative, people find their own stories to tell. A point that Austin Grossman made in an article on game writing:
"Their story might be wanting to collect every missing coin in the kingdom, or smash everything breakable, or just reach the highest vertical elevation in the game's universe. It may well be something cooler than anything you'll ever come up with.”
Not forcing a story is a massive strength for these games. You can trust the collective creativity of millions to innovate on a level that a small team of developers can never accomplish. They’ll make the bugs features, and they’ll invent meaning and significance where none was intended.
But this is not to say that experiential storytelling implies scale. A small limited scenario like a bank robbery (from either end), or a Mexican Standoff, can both provide unique experiences. The goal isn't necessarily to provide hundreds of hours of game time, it's to let the player experience something different through nothing but the interaction itself.
Getting pursued by Slenderman in Slender is an experiential story, same as the exploration and player interactions in DayZ. One is a small indie game, the other an expansive open world.
Additionally, experiential storytelling doesn’t require multiplayer. Lucas Pope’s excellent Papers, Please is a dystopian thriller putting you in a border control booth. Your choices in this booth shape your experience in profound ways, making the story of your playthrough derived from whether you comply with authority or risk terrible consequences by doing what’s “right.” But it refrains from having an opinion. It just puts you in those shoes and lets you deal with it.
In some ways, Papers, Please shows how games are an embodiment of the death of the author. Once the game reaches a player, the player’s experience is all that counts. What could easily have been an innocent plot line becomes a trope against women. Murdering innocents a rewarded achievement and an atrocity at the same time. Gay love at once equality and offense. The value of a game is all about the individual experience of playing the game, and this should be embraced. Games are simply not the media for telling stories, and they never will be.
Whether you’re approving an immigrant’s papers in Papers, Please or hiding from malevolent griefers in DayZ doesn’t matter - in both cases, you have to decide for yourself based on your own notions of risk, reward, and entertainment.
To sum things up, an experiential story starts at the controller and then has to permeate every single aspect of the game. From the immediate presentation (are you holding a gun?) to the ability to form your own opinions and make your own choices (should I report this refugee?). But also to have to take the consequences of those choices.
THE EXPERIENTIAL GAME STORY MANIFESTO
The first step in making an experiential game is to start with a prototype and not a document. With that prototype, once you can test the basics of the game, you should try to build on what players do with the prototype rather than what you’d prefer them to do.
If players discover new ways of playing, see what you can do to make those ways more interesting - don’t block them off because they don’t comply with your masterplan.
The following is a set of guidelines for making experiential stories in games. Once you got that prototype in your hands, think about how to expand on it using these guidelines. Use them to slap your wrist whenever you fumble back into narration territory.
The central concepts are consistency and consequences. Let the players learn how to play with the tools you give them, then let them deal with the consequences of what they choose to do.
The Experiential Game Story Manifesto
The game cannot arbitrarily alter or diminish the player’s interaction.
Taking away controls, locking/unlocking the camera, etc.
Dialogue or written text must never tell the player exactly what to do.
Go to X and perform Y using Z, etc.
The player has to deal with the consequences of her actions in the game.
Attacking an NPC, failing a puzzle, refusing a mission, etc.
The game cannot arbitrarily reset in order to enforce specific activity.
No ‘checkpoint reloads’ because you didn’t do as planned, etc.
All crucial information must be integrated into the game simulation.
Who’s who, where’s where, etc. No dedicated text prompts.
Pacing must be based on interaction and cannot follow a predetermined narrative.
No concept of an enforced “story arc,” etc.
The game’s content should be as optional as possible.
Places, people, puzzle solutions, etc.
There can be no arbitrary exceptions to otherwise consistent mechanics.
You can kill NPC X, but not NPC Y, etc.
The game must use the minimum amount of graphical interface possible.
Menus, tutorial popups, ammo counters, etc.
If there is an ending, the player has to actively choose it.
Can’t trigger a sudden cutscene or force the player’s hand, etc.
The heart of why game stories suck is that they’re not game stories at all. For games to be experiential, we need more focus on what makes them games. Interaction, interaction and interaction.
Same as you'd rarely call a film theatrical, calling a game "cinematic" should feel awkward and unnatural. Games should let players experience things and come back with their own stories to tell.
What it really comes down to is this: to let the player experience her own story, you must abandon the idea of telling one.