Narrative Gameplay: How games should (not) tell stories

Modern-day AAA games rely on traditional, linear storytelling. While they are rightfully praised for their cinematic qualities, the gameplay is consequently lacking in substance and dynamics. How can games tell stories without hurting their core identity?

"Video games are better without stories", claims a much-noticed article by designer and philosopher Ian Bogost. This statement is not new to the world of games as it harkens back to the old and yet ever-present "narratology vs. ludology" debate. More recently, protagonists of this conflict have been trying to push towards some kind of reconciliation by applying clearer definitions. Yet still, at least in regards to the passive, cinematic forms of authored storytelling that dominate today's action, roleplaying and adventure games, most of the widely known arguments seem to hold up decently well. However, one might notice that they do not really align with real-world behaviors. People keep buying story-heavy games and view their interest in the gaming hobby as one fueled primarily by narrative, characters and spectacular cinematic moments.

"If the audience knew what they needed, they would not be the audience; they would be the artists." (The Mindscape of Alan Moore)

But what if this is all just a paramount example of the normative force of the status quo? While there is certainly a lot to admire about the passive qualities (i.e. the presentation, staging, voice acting, soundtrack etc.) of games such as The Last of Us, Uncharted or Mass Effect, their gameplay is lackluster at best. The campaign of a modern Call of Duty can barely be described in words that would not make you think of a Michael Bay movie. The thing is that video games are a very young medium whose most successful representatives heavily lean on methods taken from the more established and mature medium of film. Not uncommonly the gameplay part is just treated as some kind of degenerate obligation, resulting in generic collections of shallow, worn out mechanims.

Therefore we cannot really blame anyone to believe that this is how things have to be and what video games are all about. But what if that is not the case? What if Bogost's claims are correct?

"Players and creators have been mistaken in merely hoping that they might someday share the stage with books, films, and television, let alone to unseat them. […] If there is a future of games, let alone a future in which they discover their potential as a defining medium of an era, it will be one in which games abandon the dream of becoming narrative media."

For a moment, let's assume the currently dominant form of storytelling in games is just a phenomenon from the early stages of a medium that is reaching out towards more "mature" inhabitants of the media landscape, still very much in search of its own identity. What would that mean? Where would we go from there? No more minutely planned and elaborate narratives? But we all still want to experience memorable and meaningful things in our playing! "Why are games still obsessed with narrative?", Bogost asks. The answer is of course that stories are invaluable on our hunt for meaning and structure in life. They are "equipment for living".

Now, it's not that games should not tell stories. But they should not try to do it in similar ways to other non-interactive forms of media. Otherwise the best we can hope for are the "unambitious" works Bogost describes. Instead a game's story has to result from the core of what makes it something special to begin with, the active participation of the player. Whenever possible, meaning should be created through the gameplay itself instead of the passive intake of information. The following sections will describe three fundamental approaches to this idea of "narrative gameplay".

Emergent Stories

For a start, a game does not need explicit narrative at all to still emergently result in a "dramatic" story. This is true of all kinds of games, even those with extremely abstract audiovisuals. In fact one can quite easily observe the act structure of a classical tragedy when examining a match of Tetris. It all begins with the daily routine of stacking blocks (setup), then tension rises with increasing speed and complexity (confrontation), until at some point the accumulation of irreversible mistakes leads to the demise of the playing protagonist (resolution).

A tragedy in the making...

We will inevitably perceive and process any good game as some kind of narrative. This is how we learn intuitively. We will remember moments that were especially close and tense more vividly since they usually hold more valuable information for our understanding of the game system than runaway victories or failures without a chance. This is why, even from a narrative point of view, systemic feedback is so important: Solid matchmaking and being able to causally comprehend the course of a game will lead to better stories that get stuck in our minds.

Of course this learning process can be optimized by choosing a fitting theme for a game. Small narrative elements (such as a "sword fighter" or a "turtle") come with specific associations and expectations regarding their behavior. That way the player's general knowledge can be used to make the (in itself abstract) gameplay more accessible, without the game having to line up with an explicitly formulated story at all.

Dynamic Stories

Going one step further into the direction of concrete storytelling, there is the option of dynamically fitting pre-defined narrative modules into the gameplay. The higher the granularity, the more flexible the game can stay. The transition from a purely thematic foundation towards this type of narrative gameplay is quite fluent. Basically games following this formula could be described as "heavily thematic", but on top they present a few very explicit events at certain points. In a way they offer the player some help in transferring the gameplay experience into a story.

The Curious Expedition supports its gameplay with narrative events.

In some cases dynamic storytelling games simulate whole fictional worlds. King of Dragon Pass for example makes use of pre-existing literary material. Dwarf Fortress even generates its own world chronicle including myths and historical figures when a new game is started. The scope of This War of Mine on the other hand is much narrower as it tells relatively concrete stories about the suffering of a group of civilians in times of war. As a more unconventional example, 7 Grand Steps tries to fit explicit story choices into a very abstract board game system. And of course there are countless possible approaches in between those examples. They all have one thing in common though: The narrative is fundamentally player-driven, i.e. based on player decisions and their consequences.

Explorative Stories

This is the point where explorative stories can sometimes differ from emergent and dynamic ones. They are much more directly shaped by an author, their elements more clearly pre-defined. Players witness, explore and investigate. Sometimes they will not be able to change the course of action at all, while - ideally - still significantly influencing their perception. In that way this type of narrative can also be highly interactive.

Often games belonging into this category exhibit a strong element of mystery and deliberately hold back pieces of their story or keep it rather vague in general. By doing this, they incentivize players to not only solve the mechanical puzzles, but also decipher "meta puzzles" contained in their narrative background. Quite frequently they challenge players more on an interpretative rather than a purely mechanical level. One could indeed call them "detective games".

The whole concept of "environmental storytelling" has been kind of a "hot topic" in game design circles over the years and is a typical example of this type of narrative gameplay. Actually most methods of implicit storytelling are. They can be seen as alternatives to passive tools such as cutscenes, text boxes and dialogue. But since they are not really concerned with telling a self-contained, well-structured story to begin with and require players to discover things of their own volition, they are quite a good fit for games in general. They add context without being too restrictive or burying the game under their narrative weight.

The first steps of an unfamiliar method of storytelling.

An oft-cited example of explorative narration is Gone Home. It is very consistent in its delivery since the player actually cannot do anything but walk around and examine objects. Therefore it rightfully caused quite a few ripples throughout the industry as well as academia, if in hindsight more as an experiment than anything else. After all, its consistency is at the same time its biggest weakness. Its gameplay simply does not hold up, even by the low standards of one-time interesting "disposable interactivity". Walking around is not enough, but in the end little more than an unnecessarily long and exhausting page turn. Ian Bogost therefore calls the genre of "Walking Simulators" a "transitional form" in his article. In transition whereto? Well, What Remains of Edith Finch recently presented us with some remarkable hints as to what the answer could be.

In any case, the interactive component of the story should not just come down to putting pacing and camera work into the hands of an amateur, i.e. the player (or maybe requiring some mindless button presses on top). It has to be interesting in itself and significantly enhance the experience.

Another impressive example of this is the time-travelling murder mystery The Sexy Brutale. The process of solving the mechanically innovative puzzles is directly fueled by the player's investigation of the game's peculiar setting and the bit-by-bit discovery of the background story. It is quite the synergistic feat that deserves way more attention than it received, according to Jim Sterling actually just as much as "any Horizon, Zelda, Nioh or Persona".

A Bilateral Plea

Well then, dear game creators: Play to your strengths! You can do much more than merely aping movies. Maybe concentrate on your gameplay for example. Trust in your audience being intelligent enough to transfer abstract outcomes into emergent stories and learn from those. You might hand them a few incentives in the form of dynamically integrated narrative legos on the way. And even if you want to present a self-contained narrative, always incorporate your players. Take them seriously and do not be afraid of challenging them. Don't just use your engine as a meaningless mediator, but as a tool of collaborative storytelling between author and recipient. After all, that is what makes your medium special and grants it its unique potential.

And dear players on the receiving end: Do not undersell your attention to the next best AAA hit drowning in smoke, mirrors, razzle-dazzle and mass appeal. Do not just expose yourselves to games, but actively grapple with them! Do play for fun, but play for enrichment just as much!

To close with a wise man's words:

If we're going to cement our future as a medium with lasting value, we have to start thinking about ourselves and what makes us unique. [...] If the puppet on the screen is the important thing to you, just go make a movie. Get out of my medium and go make a movie! […] The key to the future of gaming lies in moving away from the ways in which we are like other media.

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