Marshall McLuhan famously said “The medium is the message”. What many people don’t realize is that many, if not most stories are bound up in the medium in which they are told. Not every story can be adapted from one medium to another, as developers of movie tie-in games often learn firsthand.
Some things are lost in translation. Any of the works of Quentin Tarantino, removed from the cultural context of film, would make no sense; their message is inseparable from their medium. While Watchmen wasn’t a bad movie, it lost almost all of its meaning in the adaptation, because ultimately, Watchmen is about comic books. It is a comic book story, and filming a comic book story does not make it a film story. Let’s talk about video game stories.
Video game stories are distinct from all other stories in that at least one of the characters exists to execute the will of the audience. While (hopefully) all writers in this industry know this, very few seem to realize how to apply it. The fundamental problem is that, most of the time, the game’s writer is trying to tell a film story, because that’s quite a bit easier than telling a video game story.
Film stories are totally linear, so only one series of events needs to be accounted for; film stories can freely jump around, so pacing is much easier; and everybody knows what a film story is like, since, living in our modern Western culture, we are inundated in film.
The ultimate result is that the story of most video games follows the same structure: The player is given a destination, they must fight their way there, then they receive their next destination, repeat. Most of the time the player has zero clue what the objective after the next will be, and the game consists of a voice on the radio holding your hand and taking you on a sightseeing tour. You might think that sandbox games wouldn’t suffer from this, but they often have it much, much worse.
I don’t think I’ve ever played a game with a more directionless, meandering, groping-in-the-dark plot than GTA4. And, while I love Assassin’s Creed 2, if you put a gun to my head and told me to put the events of the plot in sequential order, I wouldn’t be able to do it, especially since I don’t remember any of them. This isn’t just an academic problem, if the player feels like they’re just jumping through hoops without any idea of where the plot’s going they lose investment in the story because it isn’t theirs.
So, how do we escape the trap of hand-holding syndrome? We need to give the player control over the advancement of the plot. The player must feel that their actions, their choices, are what drives the story forward, and that they aren’t just doing busywork between cutscenes. Before I do a point-by-point breakdown of how this can be achieved, let’s dissect a game that does this really well: Mass Effect 2.
Mass Effect 2’s story presents the player with an over-arching, long-term goal: Go through the Omega-4 Relay and defeat the Collectors. However, to accomplish this, you must first accomplish another long-term goal: Prepare. Accomplishing this goal makes up over 80% of the gameplay of ME2, and how the player accomplishes it is at their discretion. The player is allowed to choose the order in which they recruit party members, which party members they become close to, and a variety of other minor choices.
All of this works together to give the player the feeling of genuine agency. The plot very rarely railroads the player into a particular choice, and when it does so (initiating the endgame), it does so softly, imposing penalties for failing to follow rather than denying the option entirely. The player always knows what their goal is, why it’s their goal, and how they’re going to accomplish it, and the best part is: they always think it was their idea. Where other games let the player ride shotgun on a sightseeing tour through the countryside, Mass Effect 2 puts you in the driver’s seat, hands you the keys and a map and tells you to go for it.
So, what are some core points for making a good video game story? Here’s a few:
Give the player a long-term goal.
Or, more accurately, give the player the long-term goal. Tell them what the ultimate goal of the plot is, the win-condition. Maybe it’s to kill Bill Williamson, maybe it’s to escape Silent Hill, maybe it’s to save the princess from Bowser. Tell them what they must accomplish to beat the game. That way, on some level, they’ll always know the plot’s eventual direction. However, you might not always want to give an explicit goal if you want to create a sense of mystery or discovery, like in Super Metroid. That said, even Super Metroid eventually does give the player a long-term goal (find and kill all of the bosses), and unless you’re making an experimental game, you should at some point give the player a concrete goal, or, in the case of a game like Minecraft, allow the player to create their own long-term goal.
Let the player work toward this goal constantly
Giving the player a long-term goal can actually be counter-productive if you don’t let the player actually try to achieve it. I used Red Dead Redemption as an example of a game with a long-term goal, but it suffers awfully from hand-holding syndrome. I still have no idea why I needed to go to Mexico. If the player has to do unrelated actions, like say, run errands for people before being allowed to perform an action that will move them closer to the goal, they will almost certainly lose the thread of the plot. The player must always know exactly why they are performing their current actions or they will lose their investment in the story.
Let the player decide how to achieve their goal
This is good writing on a number of levels. First of all, if the player decides how to do something, they have more investment in the outcome; they can derive a very palpable feeling of accomplishment. Setting a goal and achieving it is pleasurable, this is why people play FarmVille. Secondly, if the player has made the decision, they must logically understand why they made it, and if the player understands why they are doing something, they are far, far less likely to get lost in the plot. However, if a player is forced to make a decision without understanding why they made it, their investment in the story can be killed, since now their lack of understanding has been brought front and centre.
While there are many other things you can do to improve the player’s investment in the story, many of them are situational, whereas these are universal. Now, you’re probably wondering, what about linear games? Not every game can be a sandbox game with a non-linear narrative.
However, these rules can still apply. Half-Life followed all three: it gave a long-term goal (escape Black Mesa), it let the player work toward this constantly (keep moving forward), and while it didn’t necessarily let the player decide how to achieve it, it made it clear that there was only one realistic option (shoot your way out).
I believe that this is something that will get better in time, as games develop their own story vocabulary. In the days of the NES, developers knew how to tell video game stories because they had no other choice; I believe that we’re currently just going through a phase in game design, where we think that because our games look as good as movies, that they are basically movies. They aren’t, and just like every medium before us, we’re still working out how ours tells stories differently.
In 50 years, all the games that held the player’s hand and led them from plot point to plot point will be remembered only by academics, who will look on them as relics of a generation of artists trying to find their legs. But in the games that put the player in control, the ones that fully realized the potential of an interactive medium, the ones that firmly put the player in the driver’s seat of the story; in them lies the seed for what games will be.