The Deaths Of Game Narrative

Writer and game designer Darby McDevitt examines the current state of game narrative, including how game mechanics and story are often at odds, and ponders a future where they're better integrated.

It's been quite a year for epic, narrative-driven games -- titles vast in scope, grand in ambition, and gorgeous in execution -- and I have fought my way through a few of the best.

In recent months I have transformed into an exiled Florentine nobleman thirsty for vengeance in Renaissance Italy; I masqueraded as a continent-hopping, chiseled chunk of vainglorious derring-do in search of lost treasure; and I traveled the western wilds of the United States as a battle-scarred loner fighting to restore his dignity and return to his family.

To the ear of an outsider, this might sound like a pretty diverse scrapbook of experiences, and I'd say this was half right. But there's one element that draws all these titles together under a cozy umbrella. In each game, the protagonist -- my avatar -- is a mass murderer.

Perhaps this is an unfair choice of words. After all, the moral compass of these men points true. But no man in the history of our real world has more bodies on him than Ezio Auditore, Nathan Drake, or John Marsten*. The cold fact is, these guys are efficient and prolific killers.

They have murdered dozens, if not hundreds, more people than they have befriended. And why? Because it's so damn fun, son. Killing is an activity games actually seem to encourage, since it is perfectly suited to the computational aspect of a game's mechanics. Death is a Boolean operation: something is either alive or not-alive, which makes determining victory conditions easy. Are you dead? Then you have lost. Is your opponent dead? Then you are winning; keep it up.

Take a quick survey of most game mechanics based on real-life activities and you'll find this same criterion in effect in almost all cases: the conditions for success are always clear and decisive. Jumping, punching, racing, shooting, and pulling switches are all activities that can be scored or measured with a high degree of certainty.

Violence has the added benefit of being a clear indicator of conflict, so it shouldn't surprise us that killing has been so widely adopted as a primary game mechanic. This has been the trend for centuries, really. Chess and Go got the ball rolling when their rules insisted we "capture" our opponents. It was only a matter of time before we started killing them outright and leaving their bodies to, well, fade.

This remains a touchy issue, but I don't have too many ethical reservations with our present reliance on violence as a mechanic -- judging by its ubiquity and utility, it seems to have chosen us, rather than the other way around.

Red Dead Redemption

So What's the Problem?

What I do worry about, however, is the creeping damage this exaggerated quantity of killing has inflicted on the strength, quality, and seriousness of so many game narratives. Murder is making bad storytellers out of us all. Due in large part to their fast drift towards narrative realism, far too many modern video games are now suffering from split personalities, divided between the broad and sensitive stories we watch and the blunt, violent stories we create through play.

In all three of the games alluded to above, the storylines are well-written, often subtle, and chock-full of emotional intensity. But when it comes time for the player to engage the game, these narrative highs and lows are obliterated in favor of a much smaller and more stylized range of possible expressions: run, ride, jump, dodge. Kill or be killed.

While it is true that Assassin's Creed II and Red Dead Redemption take great care to highlight their protagonists' distaste for killing, the sheer scope of the in-game violence reduces these caveats to mere lip service in much the same fashion that the anti-spectacle message at the heart of the film Gladiator is undermined by the film's reliance on violent spectacle to carry the drama.

If we cannot overcome this persistent contradiction, game narratives will remain difficult to take seriously, for even as these stories get more serious, the gameplay remains ludicrously indulgent.

In life and in all the best literature and cinema, death is usually an unfortunate and tragic event, and in most cases represents a great loss or failure. But in games -- unless it befalls a character in a cutscene -- death is as common and impactful as a sneeze, and is usually a cause for celebration. It's a triumph of one will over another. What are players to think when a game tries to have it both ways -- a weighty, tragic story and a bloody good time?

For starters, we can mitigate this problem by creating a more stable synthesis between story and gameplay, infusing the game's mechanics with broader narrative utility. Sadly, this is easier said than done. Surveying the present scope of game mechanics already on offer, there seems to be a self-imposed limit to what sort of human activity developers are willing to transform into actual gameplay.

If a designer wanted to make a game called Terminal Relations, say, in which the only goal was to comfort your pious, cancer-stricken grandfather in his final days, she'd probably have a difficult time designing the actual challenges. Matters of emotion, morality, empathy, religion, cultural identity, and the like, are difficult to translate into iterative mechanics because they are primarily psychological or interior phenomena with no clear victory conditions.

Though it sounds unrealistic, Airtight Games' Kim Swift undertook a similar challenge at this year's Experimental Games Workshop with Karma. Note the word "experimental", of course.

When a game wants to inject some pathos or philosophy into the proceedings, it's usually handled in a cutscene. Over the decades, this restriction has had the unfortunate consequence of splitting the interests and priorities of game designers and game writers into separate camps -- often working in tandem, but rarely on the same problems.

Some symptoms of this split have been noticed over the years, although their cause has not always been correctly diagnosed -- as this Kotaku article claims:

Most video games are "written" after they're completed. Writers are usually brought on board to write dialogue and exposition. Only people who don't understand what writers do would think this is an acceptable use of writing talent.

This is a rather sweeping indictment, but it's only partially correct. Although this does happen, few of our most celebrated games are made so carelessly. Rockstar, Bethesda, Ubisoft, Naughty Dog, BioWare, Valve, and others clearly craft their narratives in conjunction with their design teams.

And as an internal writer for Foundation 9 Entertainment, I have been equally fortunate to start on day one of most of my projects. But there is a definite problem to be addressed: game writing is often sub-par, clumsy, and badly integrated even under seemingly ideal conditions. Why is this?


*At last count my John Marsten had killed 910 people, 74 percent of the way through Red Dead Redemption. This makes Billy the Kid (rumored body count: 21. Actual: approximately 4) look law-abiding by comparison.

The Project Perspective

One issue plaguing game writers is their lack of a proper identity within production teams. For the best results, writers need to be thought of as designers in their own right. Good writing is design, and whether we're addressing the level- or game-flow, the pacing of new character abilities, or the introduction of new characters, most aspects of design have contingent effects on the story being told.

Designers are often surprised when a seemingly tiny change they make runs part of the story off its rails. Unfortunately, achieving a solid mechanical design is usually of greater importance to the overall product than achieving a coherent story, as the Super Mario Bros. series proves with every new sequel. A game can be fun without a good (or sensible) story, but a good story with terrible gameplay is an outright failure.

A related hurdle is the fact that game mechanics often require just as much iteration as stories do, but the two don't always evolve in the same direction over the course of a project. When late-stage design iterations happen, the results can be disastrous.

In one drastic case, a client asked one of my teams to slightly rearrange the level chronology of a game I had already written, so that certain mechanics were introduced in a wildly different order.

This obliterated my story arc, but from a design standpoint it was a relatively sensible idea; the game did have a better pace as a result. My rewrites came quickly in the weeks that followed, and I was able to paper over many of the resulting cracks, but the narrative was never as strong as it had been at the outset.

Even when a project is going well, game writers are often forced to work miracles trying to fit the emotional highs and lows of a compelling story between the narrower needs of gameplay.

How many different ways can I set up the next killing spree, chase, or navigation puzzle before the repetition begins to give the narrative an artificial tint? If I'm feeling flamboyant, I can ignore the player altogether and write the feature film I've had brewing in my head for the last few years, but at some point the player is going to want to actually play the game.

What other options are there? Perhaps with heavy investment from the team we can push the story forward through complicated "one-off" interactive set-pieces of the sort Uncharted 2 perfected. But even then, running and gunning with mild navigation puzzles will be the player's primary activities, and I'll have find ways to set them up, over and over again.

For many, this is just fine. If the designers have done their job, this repetition will be fun as hell -- for creative repetition is one of the pillars of a good game. But from the perspective of storytelling, it can be a real dud.

Assassin's Creed II

In the second season of the British comedy series "Saxondale" there is a recurring joke that perfectly encapsulates the unintentionally comic pacing of so many video game cutscenes: once per episode, Tommy Saxondale's smarmy neighbor Jonathan skips across the street on the pretense of striking up a bit of small talk. Tommy suffers the idle chatter, knowing full well that the conversation is only a front for a favor Jonathan will eventually ask of him.

Each time the conversation peters out, the neighbor bids Tommy farewell, turns to leave... and then, suddenly "remembering" something, he snaps his fingers, spins around, and asks the impertinent question that brought him over in the first place.

As uniformly excellent as Red Dead Redemption is, I doubt there are many gamers out there who don't question John Marsten's motivations for repeatedly offering the aid of his gun and steed to every low-life scam artist who asked for a measly favor. Scenes like these, which strain believability and drag the hero out of character, also reveal the artificial game structure beneath the drama.

I loathe this "mission intro" stricture even as I understand its need. Most story moments in games -- whether tragic, comic, heroic, amusing, or tender -- usually conclude with the introduction of the player's next objective. And because this objective must conform to the handful of game mechanics available, the conclusions of these scenes feel forced or stale.

Imagine Shakespeare finishing every single scene of all of his plays with a swordfight or chase and you'll get the idea. The dialog might be good, but the story arc is a staccato of identical beats.

The needs of gameplay impose harsh demands on writers that must be heeded -- demands that novelists and filmmakers can ignore -- and create a bottleneck that forces redundancy. I take perverse pleasure in watching all the clever ways Rockstar's writers conclude each mission introduction with the obligatory "C'mon, let's go do X, Y, and Z!" They're very good at disguising what is essentially the same over and over, but they can't remove it entirely.

Taking Up The Challenge

Here's my impertinent question: are all these passive narrative sequences worth the trouble? They're expertly crafted, no doubt. But despite all the investment developers put into presenting complicated stories via cinematic sequences, the stories we gamers seem to enjoy most are the tiny narratives we create ourselves through the act of playing.

We relish our personal moments of victory, the specific choices we make, and the unique experiences we create through our own efforts, even when they aren't as robust as the stories being told via cutscenes. This is why YouTube is bursting with gameplay videos showcasing speed runs, "best of" compilations, and quirky WTF clips; players are reveling in the results of their own creativity.

But by relying on such a narrow set of game mechanics, developers have limited the sort of experiences players can create for themselves. The vast majority of modern games require only that we kill, climb, and jump our way to a safe vantage from which we can passively watch the next tearful reunion, the next sex scene, the next the next break-up.

Until writers and designers combine their talents to find a more natural fusion of their disciplines, improved cinematic sequences and dialogue will not elevate the medium much higher than it is now.

It is a contentious point, but I strongly believe the claim that games are primarily about what the player does, and not necessarily the story or theme. I suspect this is the cause of so much bitterness in the game community about why their favorite titles aren't taken too seriously outside fan circles. When people unfamiliar with a particular game take a cursory peek, they will look to the gameplay to get an idea of its general theme.

One recent defender of the opposite view lauds BioShock as being about the failures of Rand's Objectivism, and laments her inability to communicate to non-gamers why this is a tale worthy of praise. I think this view is too generous by half. BioShock is "about" surviving in a hostile environment and killing people who are trying to kill you.

The story, while compelling, is part of the setting. The fact that it is possible to play BioShock and ignore most of its story should clue us in that this is not an indispensable element. The "meaning" of a game emerges from its mechanics prior to any story elements being added.

When the two are in discord, gameplay usually wins out, as Soren Johnson argues persuasively in his article and lecture Theme is not Meaning. But when the two are in alignment, we feel it all the more powerfully. The job of writers and designers in the game industry should be to discover ways to find this synthesis and expand on it, not retreat to their respective corners.

Traditional graphic adventure games have typically fared better bridging this narrative-gameplay divide: they have better pacing, more specialized narrative interactions, and more compelling story arcs than most modern action games. Think The Last Express, Grim Fandango, Space Quest, Ico, or Heavy Rain.

But this increase in narrative quality comes at the expense of deep, design-rich gameplay. Adventure games are built on a foundation of mostly static mechanics -- puzzles and long dialog trees that have a one-time use -- and should more properly be called interactive stories. This doesn't diminish their value in the least, but it does underscore how difficult it is to marry iterative game mechanics with drama to create a seamless pair.

This is a worthy challenge, and I don't believe we will fully discover the potential of storytelling through games until designers and writers wean themselves off the standard dramatic forms of past centuries and start finding ways to allow better stories to be told through game mechanics themselves, and not pre-scripted sequences built around the gameplay. In the near term following this route will probably result in stories with a much smaller scope and a much tighter focus than we are accustomed to. But what we lose in breadth, we will gain in intimacy.

A Bright Future?

Little by little, we are seeing signs of this trend. The biggest successes so far have been through the exploration mechanics found in some open world games. Without requiring a word of imposed exposition, dozens of titles have succeeded in allowing players the freedom to wander fantastical worlds at will, picking their own paths across an unknown land, discovering pieces of geography and hidden history at their leisure, creating their own story as they go.

The worlds of Fallout 3, Red Dead Redemption, and Shadow of the Colossus have been designed and crafted with just the right amount of detail to tantalize our imagination and allow us the freedom to generate our own personal travelogues: I explored the abandoned ruins, then rode along the riverbed where I came upon a great gushing waterfall, behind which was a dark cave, etc...

Of course there have been numerous other innovations: the time-manipulating mechanic in Braid, apart from being whimsically irresistible, also had a direct impact on one of the most sublime story finales this decade. When Fumito Udea implemented the "hand holding" mechanic into Ico, he created an activity that augmented the gameplay and the characters' relationship.

Chibi Robo managed to use a few simple house-cleaning mechanics to tell a tale about a family in turmoil and one small robot's attempts to cheer them. And Red Dead Redemption, for all my nagging here, delivers a subdued and touching final act that domesticates most of the game's more violent tendencies, resulting in one of the best final acts of the year.

In a more playful vein, the best entries in the The Sims series have engaged the creativity of millions of would-be architects, urban planners, farmer, crafters, and arm-chair psychologists, and led to the flowering of a million unique stories as funny and strange as the lives of the people playing them. If games continue to encourage experiments like Alice and Kev and Living in Oblivion, I think we'll be able to say we're on track to an interesting future.

This is just a small sampling of so many promising examples, and it's a very good sign. It means that developers are learning that good writing is not limited to snappy dialog, and that good storytelling need not be overtly written, but can be designed in such a way that it emerges from the player's activity.

Building further on this tantalizing synthesis between narrative and mechanics will require a lot of difficult, dedicated thought by people willing to look outside the game industry's established clichés for inspiration, and it will take a good deal of experimentation and a lot of failures to develop mechanics that provide new experiences in novel contexts. But over time it will be worth it all the effort, and serve to honor all the virtual people who gave their virtual lives to get there.

Latest Jobs

IO Interactive

Hybrid (Malmö, Sweden)
Gameplay Director (Project Fantasy)

Arizona State University

Los Angeles, CA, USA
Assistant Professor of XR Technologies

IO Interactive

Hybrid (Copenhagen, Denmark)
Animation Tech Programmer

Purdue University

West Lafayette, IN, USA
Assistant Professor in Game Design and Development
More Jobs   


Explore the
Advertise with
Follow us

Game Developer Job Board

Game Developer


Explore the

Game Developer Job Board

Browse open positions across the game industry or recruit new talent for your studio

Advertise with

Game Developer

Engage game professionals and drive sales using an array of Game Developer media solutions to meet your objectives.

Learn More
Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more