Invisible Blockers: Hidden Obstacles to Storytelling in Video Games

Narrative and storytelling techniques don't work the same way in video games as they do in traditional, linear media -- and some don't work at all!

Invisible blockers are everywhere in video games. Blockers are designed to prevent you from going somewhere that might get you into trouble. Could be an area you're not leveled-up enough to explore. Or just the edge of a level. We've all had that experience before -- wanting desperately to explore an area in a game, only to run into an invisible wall. Which just makes us want to go there more...

We consume books, TV, and film stories. Then when we turn on a video game, things are different. Certain storytelling conventions just don't seem to work the same way. And it's frustrating! Which leads some to say that games will never tell stories as well as other established media.

This sentiment is based on an assumption that games can and should tell stories like other non-interactive medium that have come before. Although I’ve played plenty of games whose stories have impacted me as strongly as any book, TV show, or movie, but here's the thing -- they impacted me in a different way, and for different reasons. Video games operates under another set of storytelling rules, with a host of limitations -- some easily apparent to most gamers, some not so much so. Interactive storytelling has its own set of invisible blockers, which come into effect the moment you press start.

Just Press Start

When you sit down to watch a TV show, it’s safe to assume that you want a story. That’s not necessarily the case with a game, even a story-centric game. Storytelling in games isn’t a prerequisite, and strictly speaking, a traditional story isn’t required to make an interesting game experience. Not everyone who plays a game wants to experience a story. To some, story gets in the way of gameplay. Others might feel that game stories simply don’t resonate like stories in other media. Even though I'm a professional game writer, sometimes I find myself skipping through dialogue.

The question is why? In non-interactive media, the only control we really have is whether we turn a movie on or off, fast forward, rewind, etc. We can reread a passage of a novel, or skip ahead. Pause a TV show while we get a drink. But that's pretty much it. We have no significant control over the story, and we accept these limitations because we've never known anything different. Tell us a story, writer. Go on. And if it's not engaging, we'll find something else to watch.

From the moment you press start on a game, you view story through a different set of assumptions. Games are about you. Depending on the game, you're the protagonist, director, cinematographer, costumer, and so on. You have control. And this control extends to the idea that in most games, you don't have to care about story. Fundamentally, this changes how we interpret a game's story -- because traditional storytelling is about the suspension of belief, about pacing, about story being delivered to you, instead of created with you as collaborator.

Even for those of us who do play a game to experience a story, it’s worth considering the types of obstacles that makes interactive stories difficult to write, obstacles that are often invisible to the average player. 

The Ticking Clock

Some storytelling tools in traditional media don’t work as well in the interactive space. Take a common storytelling element: pacing. Games are player-driven, meaning the time between plot points can vary from five minutes to five hours, depending on where your player decides to go, and what activities they elect to take part in: side quests, additional content, screwing around with your friends, staring at a rock for forever.

All of this contributes to the player’s perception of how a story unfolds. One of the most beautiful aspects of games is that they don't need to be a linear experience. If you’re curious about what’s over the ridge, follow it, plot be damned!

While there are tools that help alleviate the pacing issue in games (for example, plot-reminders when you load up a game), often brute force repetition is required for clarity. When a Non-Player Character (NPC) tells you that a villain is going to do something for the fifth time, it’s often an attempt to split the difference between entertainment and plot clarity, and this can affect how the player perceives a game’s narrative.

Let’s get more specific with pacing -- the ticking clock.

This device often signals that a story is about to reach a crescendo, barreling the audience towards a dramatic conclusion. But a ticking clock can be difficult to implement in a game. If an NPC tells you, "the building is gonna explode, you’ve got to DO something!" they’re almost certainly lying. Unless you find yourself in the middle of a timed event, you can probably go save that dude’s dog first. Pacing is one of the reasons that game writers focus on creating engaging characters, but there are invisible obstacles to creating those, too.

Simulated Characters

Generally-speaking, game writers have more control over how a character speaks and acts than they do the plot the player follows. That’s because main plot is a collaboration between writers, mission designers, level designers, and pretty much everyone else on a development team. And a main plot needs to do more than simply tell a story. As a writer you support tutorialization of new game mechanics, for example. The best games fold these tutorials into pivotal story moments.

Yet even creating engaging character can be impacted by the types of resources a writer has to sell that character. Creating characters is more expensive than you might think!

Building an NPC, for example, requires concept, a 3D model, rigging (how a character moves) and animation (what movements an NPC is able to perform). Custom animations require additional work and resources. That’s one reason why we often see the most important dramatic scenes happen in cinematics. Yet most games use cinematics sparingly. As a general rule, designers try to avoid taking control away from the player. That means that the ability to sell a dramatic scene in-game often relies upon the animations needed to support the conversation. Or a scene must be written to sell character primarily on voice.

Try this. Go start an argument with your friend, but don’t move at all. Make sure to record the conversation. Or reserve yourself to a limited set of gestures. Then watch the video. See what I mean?

A lot of storytelling relies on the suspension of disbelief. Pacing helps with this – you can’t dwell on a plot hole in a movie if you’re swept up in the moment. But games are simulations. If the player wants to test the boundaries of a simulation, they're free to do so. And because games are about you, and the control you exert over the world, it's often fun to exert that control! Stare at an NPC long enough, and you’ll realize that they’re as scripted as a character in The Truman Show, repeating the same loop over and over.

Try this. Go outside and repeat the same actions on a one minute loop. Are your neighbors staring at you? Congratulations, now you know how an NPC feels!

Interactive Mindset 

So, what areas of storytelling can video games excel, or even exceed traditional media?

World-building. Games are character-filled theme parks where players often spend dozens, if not hundreds of hours. And perhaps as importantly, as a game writer you can allow players to choose for themselves how much of a game world they experience. Main plot. Side missions. Lore. Games have tons of room to build a world, as well as the mechanics to allow you to experience that world on your own terms, based on your interests, at your own pace.

Despite certain limitations, creating characters is another avenue where games have some important advantages. In a game, characters we meet can actually help us progress -- and help us feel more empowered as a result. When an NPC gives you a new ability or power, or helps you explore the world, it establishes a connection between you and that character that's wholly different from traditional media.

In the end, experiencing a game's story depends, in part, on your mindset. Sure, an NPC might loop animations from time to time. And it’s possible I’ll try to talk to them too much and exhaust their conversation. But just as I try not to pause a TV show or movie, I’ve taught myself to sink into the world of a game, rather than poke around for the seams. So if an NPC tells me the building is about to explode, I’ll take them at their word – and hope they forgive me if I stop to stare at a rock, or save that dude’s dog. 

But the invisible obstacles don’t stop there! In no other medium does a writer have to serve more roles than in a video game, juggling not only plot and character, but tutorials, new mechanics, unfolding systems, inherent repetition of player actions/missions, the list goes on. I’ll explore all this in the next article. Coming soon!

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