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Serialized Storytelling in Games

Today's post examines the concept of serialized storytelling and how it's one area that video games still falter on.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

July 24, 2014

8 Min Read

This is a post that I've wanted to write about for a while now. Serialized storytelling is an interesting concept and one that has shown great success with TV shows like Breaking Bad, Fargo etc. Yet it's one area that video games have trouble with due to the clash between story and gameplay.


Breaking Bad, originally posted on AMCTV.com

Telling a Story:

Serialized storytelling is an evolution of the concept of serials back during the early days of radio and TV. A serial referred to a story that was stretched out over multiple shows or broadcasts designed to hook someone and keep them coming back. The use of a cliffhanger at the end of each episode was used to create a connection from one episode to another and to make the narrative more focused compared to other shows.

As TV became more popular and accessible, serialized storytelling became rare and if you look at TV today most shows are not serialized, for instance all the various dramas, sit-coms and of course reality TV.

While most shows may have a long standing plot point, most often these elements are just the explanation for the show, while the majority of the episodes deal with one off stories and characters. For shows based on the supernatural, it's where the phrase "monster of the week" came from and how there is less plot development in favor of fighting a specific monster.

Also, by not adhering to a specific story, it gives the writers the freedom to keep a profitable show going for as long as the show remains popular and then wrap things up quickly with a finale.

Now the reason why there are less serialized stories is simple: They're a lot harder to write. It's akin to writing an entire book and not just a single chapter. Incidentally, this is why most serialized shows are usually the ones that win the most awards and are the most popular: Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and so on.

Personally, I prefer to watch serialized stories now compared to when I was a child. As the big problem for me with non serialized shows is that past the first few episodes, the show settles into a generic routine for the rest of its development.

Now just because serialized storytelling usually leads to better shows, doesn't make it the perfect solution for writing a good story, as one off ideas have their own advantage.


Twilight Zone, originally posted on Scify.com

The Twilight Zone was the furthest thing away from a serialized plot but still managed to deliver great stories each week.

By not having to keep to a continued plot, it gives the writers freedom to create a variety of episodes that wouldn't be possible in a serialized format.

For instance, one of my favorite shows: The Twilight Zone was not a serialized show. Every week there was a completely different story, setting and characters. And this allowed the writers complete freedom to tell whatever they wanted without having to adhere to any specific guidelines.

People have been talking about why video games have not evolved in terms of writing and storytelling and the reason is that video games are the perfect example of non serialized storytelling.

Out With a Bang:

Video games feature some of the most stunning worlds and fantastic situations, but they are horrible settings for developing storylines.

Part of the problem has to do with the chosen one trope that I talked about on my site -- Where the entire game is written around the main character being the center of everything.

In these stories, world development is put on hold while the main character will single handily save everyone or solve the great mystery. This goes back to comparing AAA games to summer blockbusters: Where the audience is just there to be taken for a short ride.

The problem with Alpha hero stories is that it leaves us with a setting that cannot exist without the main character. And in return, requires the developers to keep using the same character for every game in the story and limits how the developers can take things further.


Bioshock Infinite

While the settings of Rapture and Columbia were amazing, their story-lines were really designed around the most exciting moment and not for developing a series around.

In God of War for instance, the developers went the Dragon Ball Z route of just escalating the threat and power levels of everyone with each new game -- First Kratos fought Ares, then fate and then the Gods themselves. This incidentally also leads to another popular plot device: the origin story.

Once you've gone as far with a main character as you can go, why not show people how it all began? The problem is that this always seems like a cash grab and nothing else as there is no plot or world development. Imagine if after Lord of the Rings, JR Tolkien wrote a book of how Gandalf learned magic as a teenager.

An important lesson for anyone wanting to be a writer is the classic phrase: sometimes less is more. Stopping a show for 30 minute flashbacks for every major character doesn't give a story more depth, we already know how these characters behave, you don't need to reiterate why they act as they did.

The other major problem with video games and storytelling goes back to the blockbuster like design and how they're built around one time settings or stories. When your game takes place at the very height of a civilization or concludes a major series of events, why would you want to play another game in the same Universe?


the walking dead

While The Walking Dead told a great story over multiple episodes, it failed to deliver on evolving gameplay to match.

An earlier story wouldn't add anything as you already know how it ends and a later story would seem like a cash grab of trying to stretch things out further and feels unwarranted (for example: The big bad guy secretly had a twin brother all this time who now wants to take over.)

This by the way was one of the complaints surrounding Bioshock 2 and how even though the story featured new characters, many people felt that the story of Bioshock was already said and done.

Serialized Games?

Episodic games were touted as the next step in video game storytelling, by allowing a team to develop a character and setting over a series of games. But the problem is that episodic games may advance a story, but none of that translates into new gameplay. So instead of developing a series, it feels more like a play that just changes the scenery and actors while keeping the same writers and costumes.

Interestingly, the Bioshock Infinite DLC went in a different route in terms of storytelling. The DLC made use of the concept of parallel worlds for different gameplay and a plot, for reasons that if you finished Bioshock Infinite, makes total sense (to some extent.)

For video games writing to evolve as a form of serialized storytelling, designers will have to stop viewing and designing games as a single story or entity. And create developing characters and worlds that not just advance in plot, but in game design. That also means creating a world that can exist without the main character.

Where the third game, (or season in an episodic series) has the gameplay evolving as much as the story. So that every game feels different enough for the others, while still keeping with the plot the writers have laid out.

Obviously, not an easy task by any means, but if video games want to continue evolving as a storytelling medium, then our plots have to grow beyond saving the world in eight hours or less.

(For more posts on game design and the industry, along with weekly podcasts, check out Game-Wisdom)

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About the Author(s)

Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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