There Is No Such Thing As A Cinematic Video Game

GB 'Doc' Burford
Nov 29, 2016 · 38 min read

Have you ever wondered why we tell stories?

I’ve heard a lot of reasons over the years, but the big one, the important one, is that stories are a human necessity. If dreams are the brain’s way of transferring memory from short term to long term storage, stories, it seems, are the brain’s way of helping us make sense of emotions. A story that doesn’t make you feel anything isn’t a story worth telling. This is why we rely on stories to help us work through our emotions. Good storytelling is fiber for the soul.

You tell stories every day, and when you’re not telling them, you’re probably listening to them. Stories are everywhere. Some are factual, some are not, some are advertisements, others are songs, some are movies, or television, or novels, or an anecdote from your best friend or most irritating coworker.

You’d think that we, the human race, would’ve collectively figured out how to tell a story by now. You’d think it’d be second nature. But it’s not, especially in video games. While I love the medium dearly, it’s historically poor at storytelling. I’d like to talk about why that is, and hopefully, somewhere in this essay, I’ll say something useful.

A Quote

“Games are a series of interesting decisions.” ~ Sid Meier, legendary game designer.

This is important. We’ll come back to it later.

A Disclaimer

(Edited this, 12/2/16)

I like coming up with this stuff myself. Trying to solve these problems is fun for me, like someone who makes their own engine for their own video game; the fun is in going through the process, even if there are more efficient solutions. I assume that there are academics who’ve already covered this topic. I’m almost positive there are. But I don’t really like reading the academic style–it’s dry–and it’s generally all behind paywalls I can’t afford. And, again, it’s the process of trying to think through this myself that I find enjoyable.

Oh, right, also, it’s worth noting that I’m going to be approaching games from an AAA angle, because those are the games I tend to enjoy the most.

(My screenshots have no meaning here; I just went for ones I found aesthetically pleasing from my Steam directory.)

(This is the Medium version of the post, made by request! Most of this stuff gets published over on my tumblr.)

1. How Film Storytelling Works

So, a long time ago, and I do mean a really long time ago, like, just after they’d figured out how to make a working movie camera, film directors figured out something about movies.

Humans react better to movies when someone on screen gives us cues as to how we’re supposed to feel about the scene. For instance, in the video below, a collection of shorts from the Lumiere brothers in 1895, we have a man, second from the right, whose entire purpose is to overact, giving the audience a sense of how they’re supposed to feel. That man’s only purpose is to stand there and look excited so the audience knows to feel excited.

https://youtu.be/4nj0vEO4Q6s?t=4m1s

There are a lot of these in film, and they all exist for that same purpose, to cue the audience in on how the audience is supposed to feel.

As film got more sophisticated, so did its methods of telling a story. Technological innovations like superior film stock, better lighting, and color photography introduced new methods of influencing audience emotion. Advances in film technology made things like the dramatic showdown in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly possible.

Then there’s sound. Play sad music while a child runs through a park, and the audience knows something bad will happen. Play happy music, and the audience will feel differently. For a practical example, watch this trailer for The Shining, a horror movie, and notice how changing the audio changes the tone. Here’s Dumb and Dumber as an Inception-style thriller. A video titled “Pixar’s The Terminator.” In each example, the genre is changed almost entirely through audio.

Lastly, there’s the art of juxtaposition. A Russian guy, Lev Kuleshov, discovered something really interesting about film editing. If you take two different shots and put them together, the audience will derive a new meaning from it. Here’s director Alfred Hitchcock explaining how it works:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TNVf1N34-io

Take a picture of a man smiling, cut to a baby in a carriage, cut back to the man smiling, and you get the impression that he’s a kindly old man. Replace the baby with a woman in a bikini, and suddenly, he’s a lecherous old man instead. Combining two separate images creates a third emotional effect.

So, basically, film, as a medium, is wonderfully suited to communicating emotion through music, sound, performance, editing, and so on.

…Enter video games.

2. Video Games Are Not Film

On the surface, video games seem a lot like film. You watch them on a TV, they have video segments that often feel like movies, and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, these similarities are rarely more than skin deep.

Video games struggle to convey emotion to the audience. Players can experience emotions while playing the games, but it’s harder for the developer to control emotional response.

For instance, a game can’t exhibit the Kuleshov effect through gameplay without breaking the game’s flow. A movie like Mad Max: Fury Road can cut through a bunch of different shots, but by maintaining the same direction of motion across the frame, the audience never feels disoriented. Most video games that perform cuts are horror games like F.E.A.R., which use those cuts to deliberately confuse the audience. This is because players, existing in similar 3D space, are responsible for the act of navigating through that space. In film, the director controls that.

In film, the director’s control over the camera is a strength. In games, it’s the opposite; players tend to zone out once they lose camera control. They’re engaged when they’re interacting, and they’re not engaged when they’re not interacting.

Now, I’m not saying “you can’t convey emotions in a game.” I’m saying that you can’t convey emotions like a film does in a game because of the way players engage with the medium.

One of the worst levels in a video game is Half-Life 2’s A Red Letter Day, a level where you run around like a child on crack while people vomit story at you. It’s nothing but exposition and character, and it might be great in a film, but in the game, most players I know are running around, climbing, jumping, fiddling with buttons and knobs, waiting for the game to get on with it and let them fight the bad guys.

But wait, it gets worse!

As a game director, you can’t control the camera and editing the way a film director can, unless you’re making something extremely limited, like a Telltale game or a Bioware-style conversation, and those games tend not to be as good as movies because their conversations are almost exclusively done through over the shoulder shots. Stand still, alternate the camera, bing, bang, boom, done. It’s why most game conversation systems are so boring. You’re just clicking through dialogue options until you get to the end of the conversation. If you’re lucky, the game will have some meaningful choice and consequence system, but how many games truly have meaningful choice and consequence?

Most films tend to do more than over the shoulder conversations, using interesting actions and complex body language to keep things interesting. But, again, this stuff is way more interesting when you’re watching, not when you have expectations of interaction. Telltale makes some great stuff, but does their art style allow for them to pull off anything as complex as that great scene from The Silence of the Lambs?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5V-k-p4wzxg

Worse still, your camera must remain distant, and if not distant, then in first person. Some of the least interesting bits in video games happen when the directors pull the audience in close to see what a character is feeling, because the player has lost camera control. Like, oh, geez, this character is grimacing while she’s squeezing through a narrow passageway. This isn’t an interesting decision at all.

There’s a story about the movie Air Force One, where Harrison Ford reads through a big speech the writer’s prepared for him, and he takes the writer aside and says “I can do all of that with a look.” He did it with a look, and, according to the screenwriter, the movie was better for it.

How could you convey the emotions behind that look in a game like, say, The Witcher 3, when 90% of the playtime is spent with the camera pulled far away and kept at a distance from the audience? How do you give players this moment?

You can’t. You could go with a cutscene, sure, but then you’re not telling a cutscene through gameplay; you’ve merely interrupted the gameplay to tell a story. Like, if you want to replicate cinematic storytelling, you need to have cinematic control. That’s all there is to it.

That tends to create really bad games, like Uncharted 2, where you keep breaking player decision-making so you can show them buildings exploding or bridges collapsing. Cool, sure, but where’s the interesting decision making?

3. But Wait, There’s More!

So, let’s talk about screenwriting. One of the cardinal sins of screenwriting, specifically. Any of you seen Red Tails? There’s a scene in the movie where one of the main characters says “please give us the planes,” and his superior officer replies “okay, you got the planes.” In the next scene, a guy asks, “did we get the planes?” and someone replies, “you got the planes.” The scene after that has someone else asking “did we get the planes?” and he’s answered by the planes coming in to land.

This is called a double beat. Actually, this specific example is a triple beat, now that I think about it, but the same problem is presented and resolved three times. Repetition of information is one of the many reasons that Red Tails is a bad movie. Audiences only need to hear information one time. Darth Vader’s “I am your father” scene in Star Wars is set up as this big, important bit of information. It’s highlighted by dramatic music and Luke’s reaction. The movie doesn’t need it explained three times. Luke doesn’t immediately recap this information. The audience already saw it. We don’t need to sit in on a conversation where Luke explains the scene to Leia. We got it the first time.

So, games are faced with yet another problem, which is that games are built on systems, and systems are, by their vary nature, repeatable. You learn how to shoot a bad guy, so now you will shoot even more bad guys. Games are built around this idea of repeated behaviors, while film is built around the opposite of that.

This repetition nullifies emotional resonance. The showdown in Once Upon a Time in the West is the payoff the audience has spent two hours waiting for. The showdowns in Red Dead Redemption are entirely forgettable moments that occur because… some guy in the street wants to fight you.

Repetition is necessary in game design, because players need to know that if they perform an action, a predictable result will occur. If not, the player gets upset.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, this repetition was extended to the idea of the “rule of threes,” which is this moronic idea that repeating an action three times is somehow desirable or perfect. This comes from some old Greek ideas for storytelling (three pigs, three bears), and applied, without thought, to video game design.

“Oh no, the bad guy is about to leave orbit, go press three different buttons to stop him!”

We got it, Halo 4. But y’know what? It’s boring performing the exact same encounter three times in a row. Seriously. Super boring. Not fun. No wonder it’s the worst-received Halo game ever. Too many games follow that same style of design. Making a player fight three waves of enemies or activate three buttons is never fun, because the outcome is predictable, you’re providing the audience with information they already have, and you’re robbing them of the chance to make interesting decisions.

This whole “repeat objective 3X” thing isn’t endemic to video game design, it’s just the hallmark of bad or unthinking design.

Look at Gears of War 3, a game with a wonderfully-paced first chapter. One moment you’re trapped on a dock, backs to the wall, defending yourself against an enemy onslaught, and the next you’re running a bomb like it’s a football and you’re about to score the game-winning touchdown, and immediately after, you’re fighting monsters while zooming down a zipline, and after that, you’re dodging mortar fire as you traverse a bridge. Everything’s changing. The context is never the same. You might repeat the same shooting mechanics, but by changing the encounter design, you’re keeping the game more interesting.

4. Interlude

So, let’s recap: film is an interesting medium because of the director’s control over image, performance, juxtaposition, and sound, and it’s not repetitive. Games, on the other hand, have relatively little control over any of these elements, and they’re literally built upon the idea of repetition.

So, how do you tell a story in a game?

Not like a movie, that’s for sure.

5. Playing Along

So, there’s this game, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, which starts off with you in this dramatic action sequence that culminates in your best friend’s death. In the next scene, you’re at his funeral, and when you walk up to his casket, a prompt flashes on screen, telling you to press F to pay your respects.

A lot of people made fun of this.

On the surface, it makes sense: how can you really pay respects for someone by just pressing a button? What meaning could possibly be conveyed in a single button press? It seems so absurd.

But this kind of scene happens in a movie all the time: the protagonist is involved in a struggle, then expresses sadness at a funeral in some way. In any other medium, we wouldn’t find ourselves laughing at this scene, because we’d be watching the actor and we’d feel sad because he’s emoting sadness.

Advanced Warfare wants you to participate in the same action; it wants you to be the sad guy, but this only works if you’re willing to play along, and many gamers aren’t. Remember when I mentioned A Red Letter Day above? That’s how players tend to respond, running, jumping, and climbing, not really paying attention to the story or trying to be the character.

If you’re trying to embody the character, this moment actually works really well. You have to tune out the fact that there’s a button telling you what to do, and embrace it as a thing your character would do of his own volition. If you take this as a very sincere attempt to bring you into the act of role play, it’s a great moment, which is true of the Call of Duty series in general.

The problem, of course, is that players rarely want to play along.

It’s easy to watch someone and feel empathy for them. It’s much harder to be put in that person’s shoes while sitting eight feet from your television and try to play along with that. It’s a problem that’s challenging for me to understand because I’ve never had a problem with this; when I play No One Lives Forever, I’m Cate Archer. When I play Halo, I’m Master Chief. When I play Half-Life, I’m Gordon Freeman. It helps when the character can vocalize just enough to give the player a sense of the character’s personality, which is one of the reasons I had a much better time playing as the vocal hitman Daud in Dishonored than the mute soldier Corvo.

Some games, like Half-Life 2, make this extremely hard by going out of their way to define the character while avoiding overt storytelling. Like, at one point, someone asks you if you remember crawling through vents to get an absent-minded professor’s keys, because apparently you did this all the time in Black Mesa, but of course, you have no memory of this, because you never did that. It’s especially jarring if you’ve created your own version of Freeman in your head, and your mental image of the character doesn’t match up with the game’s.

Players have to be willing to shut out the real world and become the game character, but players rarely want to do that. If you can embody the character and perceive the world As They Do instead of As A Game Where Death Means Nothing Because You Can Reload, you can connect better, but this is challenging for most game designers to accomplish.

One studio that has tried this, Frictional, has been wildly successful, commercially speaking. You can read this excellent, in-depth essay by studio director Thomas Grip’s if you want to better understand their philosophy. That said, I personally don’t connect well with the studio’s games. In an early section of their most recent game, SOMA, it became abundantly clear that nothing could harm the player, so all the attempts at scary moments felt less scary. (edit: for clarity, nothing can hurt the player in that early section; things can hurt the player later) Without any risk, there could be no fear (some fans have suggested to me that the game is trying to be more existential style horror, but since that section precedes those elements, their argument is flawed).

My favorite recent horror game, Alien: Isolation, is frightening because of the unpredictability of the alien. A lot of work went into making it seem like a living, thinking creature. Rather than SOMA’s “oh no, a loud noise!” approach in its earliest level, the eponymous alien is actively hunting you at every opportunity. In SOMA, you can walk through the level as the designers want you to. In Isolation, you’re thinking about how to distract the alien or slip past without it noticing. Interesting decisions, friends.

6. Paying Attention

The act of play requires attention, especially when making decisions, so narrative is often lost in the background.

Developer Valve learned this while working on their puzzle game Portal. In the director’s commentary for the game, one of the developers says that they quickly learned to stop the bad gal, GLaDOS, from speaking whenever the player was solving Portal’s puzzles. It takes a lot of brainpower to act and speak at the same time.

I love Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. I think it’s one of the finest video game campaigns ever made, but a lot of other people don’t feel the same way. Back when it launched, in 2009, most people I spoke with and read said the story was “stupid” and “incomprehensible.” I remember more than a few people telling me they only figured out the story by reading the Wikipedia summary.

The thing was, most of the plot holes and confusing points that people spoke about is all explained in the game, which is internally consistent throughout the experience. All of the information you need to know is conveyed in the game, but here’s the thing: the game jumps between something like six different perspectives.

It’s a lot easier to follow the disparate plotlines of Kiefer Sutherland, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Shohreh Aghdashloo in the television show 24 because each one of those actors looks different, and 24’s clever transitions often show both characters operating simultaneously. It’s a show with dozens of plotlines that are easy to follow.

Modern Warfare 2 doesn’t make it easy to visually and aurally identify that you’re playing characters like Roach, Soap, or that one Astronaut. I had one person ask me “how did I even get into space,” believing that they were playing the same character though the entire game.

In other words, another unique challenge facing games is that decision making and audience participation require more of your brain processing power to comprehend. It seems like games need to have distinct action/narrative breaks in order to sustain attention.

7. Editing

A few years ago, I had a really dumb idea while working on an indie film, which was for a seamless, single-take shot up a flight of stairs. I later realized how foolish my suggestion was and tried to retract it, but the director had become enthralled with the take, and he insisted we shoot it. As it turns out, a single take up two flights of stairs is the most boring thing ever. It’s not as boring in games, because you’re thinking about moving, but in a film, you’re sitting still, so walking up two flights of stairs does, like… basically nothing for the audience. Nothing.

Essentially, this shot caused the audience to mentally check out. You might have noticed this problem popping up before. Different cause, same result. It’s bad. You, as the storyteller, want people to pay attention to the story. To do that, you have to keep them engaged. Poor storytelling is poor because it loses the audience.

Games have a serious editing problem. Half-Life 2’s dedication to being a seamless road trip adventure means lots of unnecessary and boring gameplay segments that feel out of place in the overall narrative. Only near the end did Valve decide to plop the player in a teleportation machine to prevent them from spending a lot of needless time simply moving between A and B, which is part of the reason the back half of the game is vastly better than its opening.

Titanfall 2, which is literally the best first person shooter ever made after Halo and Half-Life, features an audiolog that lasts… I don’t know, like five minutes? The information contained within the audiolog itself can be conveyed in less than thirty seconds. Oh, and you can’t walk away from the audiolog while it’s playing, because if you do, you can’t keep listening to it.

Yes, the greatest failure of Titanfall 2, a game about movement, is that you can only encounter part of the story if you stop moving. It’s frustrating. It’s not fun. You’re just listening to a dude give a speech.

8. Form And Function

“Cinematic” is like so many other good words that lost all meaning to the unyielding public relations machine. It’s lost all meaning. This is because way too many games are interested in mimicking the cinematic form in all the ways it can (mostly just with sweeping camera shots and lots of video) without mimicking cinematic function.

Put another way, what customers want is to feel like they’re in a movie, and most ‘cinematic’ games instead make them feel like they’re watching a movie.

Titanfall 2 just might be the most truly cinematic game of all time; it places you in the head of the protagonist, rather than in the seat at the theatre. It’s you experiencing the drama, it’s you getting flung across a dizzyingly deep chasm, it’s you doing all the cool things. Respawn constantly changes things up; you’re given time to breathe, sure, but you’re always moving from one unique moment to the next. No two levels are alike; each one presents new and exciting scenarios. Variation is the name of the game. Don’t let the player predict what’s going to happen. Surprise them. Keep it nice and varied, just like a great movie.

Then there’s Thirty Flights of Loving, a game that cleverly points its players in all the right directions while letting you feel that they’re in control. The relative simplicity of the game’s visuals and 3D design mean that when it cuts, it actually works. I’m not sure the same ‘editing’ style would work well in most games, but its creator, Brendon Chung, has implemented it wonderfully here. At the end, I sat there, in a churning sea of emotion. It’s a wonderful game, and perhaps the only one that replicates both the form and function of a movie while still being a game.

What I’m saying is that I’d rather see more games focus on creating the sensation of being in the events of a movie than relying on the aesthetic conventions of film. As it stands, studios like Naughty Dog have to rely on a dissatisfying, split personality approach to gameplay, and it simply does not feel good.

Titanfall 2 made me feel like I was experiencing the adventure I’d see in a movie, like I was truly a part of the experience.

In a recent interview with Glixel, Todd Howard, head honcho over at Bethesda, makers of Skyrim and Fallout 4, says they like to start every game with tone. Everything else works to support that tone. It’s one of the reasons I believe they’re so successful.

In other words, don’t replicate form, replicate function.

9. So Here’s A Weird Question

Do games need to be like movies at all?

Can they tell stories like paintings and sculptures do, conveying mood more than event? Does a game possess the physical presence of these things, perhaps through virtual reality? Does an overt story even need to be told? What about emergent storytelling found in games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.?

What’s emergent storytelling? A representative of Ubisoft, one of the game industry’s biggest publishers, mentioned that his company was interested in creating games that were focused less on curated narrative and more on creating “anecdote factories,” that is, games where drama arises through the conjunction of different mechanics (the rules of interaction) or systems (a collection of mechanics).

You might have a mechanic for accelerating, steering, and braking a car. Those mechanics combined form a system. You can take the car driving system and the physics system and jump your car off a cliff during a car chase, land on a boat in the river below, and escape from the cops who can’t reach you. That’s emergent storytelling. Games like Hitman and the aforementioned S.T.A.L.K.E.R. are built around this idea.

10. Medium And Affect

“The medium is the message,” said Marshall McLuhan, prominent theorist in communications. This statement was hammered into our heads over and over and over again, in my journalism and film classes. It’s a foundational idea for this piece; with regards to storytelling, it means one thing:

A story is shaped by the means of delivery just as much as its characters or plot.

You have a story idea. You want to tell it, but how do you tell it? Pink Floyd’s The Wall is a story that was meant to be told on a record, through song, and Cats is meant to be seen on the stage, and The Wizard of Oz works beautifully thanks to its mix of monochromatic and Technicolor film. House of Leaves and The Manual of Detection are books that work best as books.

Look at this panel from the comic We3, drawn by Frank Quitely:

How would you write that same sequence in a book or show it in a film? Whatever you do will fundamentally change the work’s affect.

I know I said I didn’t like academia, and I don’t, but there’s one essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, by this guy, Walter Benjamin, that seems fitting here. Essentially, Benjamin claims that art has a physical presence, and he wonders if that presence can be lost when a work is duplicated with a machine. It’s one thing to see a painting in a textbook, and it’s another thing entirely to stand in front of that same painting and take in its sheer physicality.

Presence is one of the things that makes a work what it is. In fact, lots of little things are, like the analog warmth from a record, a film that’s been shot on film stock instead of recorded digitally, and a video game played on a large computer monitor up close as opposed to a television across the room. All of these things offer a kind of presence, and these things must be considered when attempting to tell a story.

It’s all about emotional affect.

What’s the story you want to tell, and, more importantly, how is that going to make the audience feel?

11. Is This Even A Choice?

So, it kinda sounds like I’m arguing against traditional narrative in games, doesn’t it?

After all, I’ve pointed to all the ways that games are distinctly non-cinematic, and I’ve heavily emphasized the importance of interesting decisions and emotions over events.

But, to me, at least, I’m not so much arguing against narrative tradition as trying to describe the obstacles that must be overcome while highlighting the bits I feel should be emphasized, which are, yup, emotional resonance and interesting decisions.

It all comes down to motive. In any good story, the characters all have strong motives. An antagonist who is evil for the sake of evil isn’t as interesting as Captain Ahab, whose lust for revenge against the white whale that eluded him doomed his crew. Because games require players to act, they must be doubly focused on the player’s need for compelling motive. The more reason a player has to act, the more they are likely to connect with the game. An emphasis on strong emotional resonance, considering each and every aspect of game design in the way it will influence the player’s feelings, that’s the key to telling a great video game narrative.

Capitalizing on emergent narrative is important, because it’s a strength of the medium, but that’s like saying films should focus on good cinematography and editing. Of course they should, but those are merely ways to enhance the narrative. On their own, they’re merely aesthetic qualities of the work.

I have this super smart friend, and in a recent chat, he pointed out that he doesn’t enjoy games that don’t have a narrative context. I’m the same way, so I knew exactly what he meant. A game like Minecraft might feature emergent narratives, but without context, I lose interest quickly. One of the reasons the new Hitman game is so interesting is that it provides a context (here’s a target, he’s a bad man because of certain reasons, please kill him, and here are some suggestions to how you can do it) for all its actions, but beyond gentle suggestion and the assassination target, everything else is left up to the player. It lets me be creative within interesting constraints.

Dishonored, I feel, had a really strong foundation with its setup: you’re sworn to protect the Empress, who is also your lover, but she is murdered, your daughter, the new Empress, is kidnapped, and you’re framed for it. You want revenge, and pretty soon, you are given the chance to expose the real murderers and rescue your daughter. Good, strong motives. How you handle the levels is entirely up to you, and the tools at your disposal push you to play creatively, but that strong emotional core what keeps it all together and maintains your interest.

In other words, traditional storytelling in games is still invaluable, but it needs to be done right.

12. Story Vs Gameplay

If there’s one way to tell stories “wrong” in games, it’s by making the mistaken assumption that “story” and “gameplay” are two separate concepts; it’s this idea that a “narrative-heavy” game must inherently be light on the gameplay. This false dichotomy has resulted in way too many pointless arguments over what should be emphasized.

The reason this misunderstanding has arisen is because, historically, games tend to separate gameplay and narrative. The game Vanquish, for instance, starts with a lengthy video, then allows you to walk down an L-shaped corridor, and then, lo and behold, you are faced with yet another lengthy video. Videos are equated with story, while gameplay is considered its own thing.

The thing is, gameplay is the story. Remember, earlier, when I suggested focusing on mood and tone to tell a game’s story? Gameplay is a lot like that. Dead Space features a player character who is slow and plodding, which helps enhance its scary vibe. Doom makes you agile and tough, giving you the sensation of being a powerful space marine. Every single mechanic in a video game contributes to how you, the player, feels.

So there’s this false assumption that “story” is fundamentally a non-gaming thing, as if you can measure story, like it’s a tangible thing. The assumption is that a “story rich” game is one that has lots of cutscenes or something, but that’s never true. It was never true.

First, consider this: Marathon, a shooter from the mid-90s, has text terminals you can choose to read at your leisure. Discovering them changes the way you think about them, because the levels are non-linear, meaning the story can be delivered to you in ways that only make sense once you piece them together. The Marathon games are rich with story, so much so that there’s an entire website dedicated to discussing the game’s esoteric story. It’s probably the most-discussed game story there’s ever been, but it’s all on optional text terminals.

Then there’s stuff like System Shock 2 and Thief, where much of the story is delivered to you through things like radio calls, story you hear from people wandering around the levels, and audio logs. System Shock 2 has, what, two cutscenes and two intrusive scenes in its 12–20 hours of playtime?

A cutscene is video. An intrusive scene is one where the narrative intrudes upon your play, like when you are telekinetically carried around a level during exposition. Gameplay is shut down so you can become an exposition receptacle. It’s not a cutscene, but it’s not gameplay; it robs you of the ability to make interesting choices. Uncharted 2 has a bunch of intrusive moments, where it takes camera control away to show you ‘story,’ but it isn’t really story, it’s just explosions or whatever. System Shock 2 has a sequence where you’re standing on a platform and SHODAN gives you a brief speech.

It’s okay to remove player agency from time to time; heck, there may be narrative reasons to remove agency (but it’s easy to lose player interest, instead of mimicking a sequence in a film that can rob the protagonist of choice and still be dramatic). Gears of War forces a slow-walk sequence whenever it’s loading.

Gameplay is the story.

13. The Walking Sim Must Be Stopped!

So there’s a kind of game that nobody ever really figured out a name for. I’ve heard it called a lot of things, but have always had some affection for “walking sim,” because I grew up on a healthy diet of nothing but Microsoft Flight Simulator.

What’s a walking sim? Well, there are quite a bit of ’em out there, and each developer handles things a little bit differently, but the gist is that they’re games where you don’t do much aside from walk around, listen to story that’s usually done through voice over, and maybe solve puzzles.

It should come as no surprise that, to many, walking sims possess little value. Walking through a space, listening to exposition, and occasionally overcoming slight obstacles to move forward is something that appeals more to devs who’d rather avoid spending time on more complicated systems than fans who generally prize a high content-to-dollar ratio. A four hour game where a story is told at you is generally going to be seen as less valuable than a hundred-plus hour game set in a massive open world with deep choice and consequence.

Walking sims are essentially the opposite of Meier’s ethos of games as a series of interesting decisions; by the very nature of their design, one could even reasonably assume that there are no interesting decisions to be made in them.

Consider Gone Home, a game where your parents moved while you were away on summer vacation, and you arrive home to your family’s new house, only to find it abandoned. You explore the house, traveling room to room, listening to voice overs that play in each room and reading various notes left around the house until you learn where your family went.

That’s it. That’s… all you do.

The story is that a girl explores her house until she finds where her family is. There’s a bunch of back story too, but that’s not the story. It’s all setup or lore, and while there’s some great characterization to be found by exploring the house, the actual story being told is just “she went into this room, listened to audio, interacted with all the objects, and moved onto the next one, until she found the one audio log that led her to the key to get into the attic where she listened to the final voice over.”

Even now, I find myself questioning the value of Gone Home. It’s got a host of technical issues and the weak backstory (the game seems to want us to sympathize with a high schooler who ran away with her crush; it might’ve made sense if her family hated her, but no, they all love and adore her, so she’s just a bad person), so what you’re left with is… some good environmental storytelling, I guess?

Basically, the game does a good job at being structured so you always go exactly where it wants you to go, and when you’re there, you’ll find plenty of interesting things, like VHS-recorded tapes of the X-Files. If you want to know how to do environmental storytelling without the traditional video game cliche of someone writing messages in their own blood, Gone Home is great at characterization through detail. Even then, it still resorts to telling most of its story through audio logs, another bad video game cliche. People tell you details you have to know through voiceovers.

Y’know that storytelling rule “show, don’t tell?” It exists because people are more likely to believe you and become invested in your story when you show them something (she kicked the dog) vs telling them (“she is bad”). Every room in Gone Home has a tremendous amount of detail that gives you insight into the personality of these characters, but most of what you hear is just the game playing a voice over at you where the character basically just explains what is happening. It’s Bad Storytelling 101.

The same thing happens in games made by developer thechineseroom. Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, Dear Esther, and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture all convey their narratives almost entirely through voiceover that tells you everything that happened. Occasionally, you may be tasked with solving a light puzzle, like “replace this fuse,” or “fuel this car,” which is more about going back to where you saw something, picking it up, returning to where you were, and clicking an interact button.

There are no meaningful decisions in these games, the narratives themselves, both in terms of the actual story of your interaction and the voiceover story being told at you, suck… it’s like… heck, what value do these games possess? Why should I care? Why do I want to care? What value does a walking sim possess besides being cheap to develop?

Can a walking sim be good, or must the walking sim be stopped?

A few games, like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and Ether One, both manage to tell better stories and feature a lot more puzzles, and that’s a great start, but for me, two walking sims show the genre’s potential better than any other.

The first one is Adr1ft, a game about surviving in space. While its story is told primarily through audio logs and radio calls, the process of obtaining those logs is interesting. It makes sense that a space station would feature flight recorders and ship’s logs too. While I’m still not 100% behind expository logs, no game in the universe has made a better argument for why it should have logs, and, like I said, it’s the process of getting to the logs that makes Adr1ft such a great game.

See, you’re in space, and you’re losing oxygen. Fast. You must explore the ship for your own survival. Already, you have a motive beyond “where is everyone?” or “why am I here?” Adr1ft actually asks and answers those questions too, but frames them behind a desperate search for more oxygen and a way to prepare the escape pod to return home. The game puts a lot of weight on player motivation, and as a result, Adr1ft is a much, much better game than Gone Home.

Having great performance, an interesting backstory, some cool touches of environmental design, and looking a million times better also helped. Sure, I have my complaints (it relies on the rule of threes in its design just a bit too much), but all in all, the game’s setting and oxygen mechanics go a long way to making it interesting on its own, before the exposition.

Then there’s The Beginner’s Guide, a game that is ostensibly about the works of a person, Coda, who makes a bunch of weird little video gamey things, mostly for himself, until the narrator, Davey, takes an interest in his work.

The Beginner’s Guide is fascinating because it moves you forward by telling you about Coda, by framing itself entirely as “I want to show you the evolution of this one person’s art. I want to show you the inside of his head.” So, as you play through the game, messing with Coda’s mechanics when you can, and following along with Davey’s fixes when Coda’s games become unbeatable.

Generally, when discussing games, I like to talk about everything, because I think having rules against spoilers hampers our ability to understand games, but The Beginner’s Guide needs to be played to be understood, so I’m going to avoid going into too much detail. It works because it provides you with momentum; it’s brilliant because of how it inspires curiosity and continues to do so as the game moves forward.

Adr1ft and The Beginner’s Guide are wonderful story-driven games, but neither displays a disdain for the medium’s form. Instead, they embrace it, and as a result, provide far more compelling games than their more exposition-heavy brethren. Interesting decisions make them games worth playing. The walking sim isn’t a bad idea, it’s just that, like with any other game, success is execution-dependent.

14. Medium, Message

The point of all this, then, is that, as McLuhan said, the medium is the message. If you want to tell a story with a video game, then presumably, you’re going to tell that story in ways that make use of the video game’s form. That means that your storytelling is going to be done through interesting decisions.

When a story is in a game, that story is about you, in a certain time and place, the decisions you make, and the results of those decisions. Games are fascinating because the only way to truly experience their stories is to be the person at the controls pressing the buttons. Anything else and you’re just reading the Wikipedia summary.

This isn’t to say that games can’t make use of other media, because they totally can. If you are a person in a place and time, why can’t that person read a book? Thus, a book can be in a video game. You can watch the entirety of To Kill a Mockingbird in the video game The Darkness. The Max Payne games use comic book panels to tell parts of their stories. And, yes, sometimes, you need a cutscene to tell your story. Games can let you do all of those things. It’s just important to be aware of how combining mediums shapes your message.

For instance, To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t just a video file you can watch in the game, it’s a movie you watch on your couch with your girlfriend, who eventually falls asleep in your arms. In the game, you’re sitting there, in first person, as Jackie, watching a tv. It’s about participating in the act of watching a movie more than it is about watching the movie itself.

There’s no hard and fast rule for any of this. It’s one of the things that makes games so exciting. All I can do here is highlight the pitfalls and concerns in the hopes that being aware of them leads us to better games. I hope I can make people more aware as gameplay as a tool for storytelling.

Remember Thirty Flights of Loving, mentioned earlier? Go play that. It’s five bucks and twenty minutes long. It should run on just about any computer you have. Play it, then play it two more times. Check out Gravity Bone, which is included. Notice how the game uses simple things, like simply peeling an orange and throwing the peels off an apartment balcony brings you closer to the characters. It’s the little things that matter most, and Thirty Flights of Loving is a game that’s all about the little things. It’s a game where the memory at the end lasts as long as you want it to; to move onward, you have to take action, you have to bring the reverie to an end.

Interesting decisions.

I believe the most powerful moments in a game’s story are always driven by player action. Here’s an example. My buddy Max was carrying the relic, an item keeping the rest of the team alive. Something happened — it seemed like a glitch — and Max died. Just before my character went blind, I dove on the relic and picked it up just long enough to keep our team from dying, then I, and the rest of the survivors, were teleported into a prison, with one exception, my brother, Buff.

Buff knows we’re gonna die, but the boss has essentially no health left, so Buff charges him. It’s a crazy maneuver, and it’s going to get him killed, but he knows we’re doomed, so he does it anyways. He fires his machine gun at the boss. No effect. He tries to dodge an explosion or something, and he goes flying off a cliff, to his death. He activates his character’s ability — the super-powered golden gun, and as he falls, he nails the boss right in the face…

…and the boss dies. Our loot drops, we’re all resurrected, and the battle is over.

If Max hadn’t recovered the relic, we would have died. If I hadn’t picked it up when he died, we would have died. If Buff hadn’t managed to kill the boss, we would have died. It was one of the most exciting, adrenaline-inducing moments in my entire life, and it’s not the only one games have given me. To me, that’s one of the most beautiful things a game can do.

But don’t get me wrong, if you’re an AAA developer, you still need to sell your game like this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7nRTF2SowQ

But mechanics are storytelling, and you can do a lot of things with mechanics. You can create mood and tone entirely through the tools the player has, how they feel, and the level and encounter design.

People too often assume that the story must only be the non-narrative game bits, but that’s just not true. It never has been. When the nuclear bomb goes off in Modern Warfare 2, and you wander the blackened streets of Washington, D.C., occasionally partaking in brief, tense gunfights, that’s story as much as anything. It’s a story about surviving the aftermath of a nuclear explosion.

When you come up with a great strategy for taking out the latest assassination target in Hitman, and you pull it off, but something goes wrong and you have to come up with some clever solutions on the fly, heart pounding, that’s story too.

Games never stop telling stories, but sometimes, they stop telling them through gameplay, and the important thing here is just to remember that gameplay is story too. It’s a juxtaposition of decision, action, and aesthetic. It’s the events that occur to you, sometimes scripted by the creators, sometimes completely unpredictable. Having someone read audio logs at you is the least interesting kind of storytelling a game can do.

Once, in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., I was beset by bandits. I fired at a shape that was firing my way, only to realize that he’d been shooting at a bandit behind me, and he’d saved my life. I had killed my protector. That’s powerful storytelling, and it wasn’t directed by human hands. When I found the corpse, I realized it was Edik Dinosaur, an NPC I only recognized because of his goofy name. I’d always been happy to see him, and now, I’d killed him. I felt grief. No game has ever made me feel that kind of grief.

Interesting decisions.

I remember hearing from a bunch of different action screenwriters over the years that action scenes are stories in miniature. A story is just something where a character wants something, but when an obstacle arises, the character must struggle to overcome it. Wants, opposition, and action. That’s a fight scene. In The Matrix, Neo wants to rescue Morpheus from the sinister Agents, but guards block his way in a hotel lobby, so he fights through them to get to Morpheus.

The really good action sequences take this to a microscopic level. Neo wants to punch that guy, but that guy blocks, so Neo shoots him instead, and so on. Games are the same way. You enter an arena in Doom, and you want to get out, but you must fight monsters to do so. The really good games take these actions to microscopic levels; enemies are fun to fight. Halo’s elites are always good for a story or two. They might rush you, hoping for a quick melee attack, or draw your fire while another sneaks up behind you. It generates its own stories.

This is all storytelling! It has emotional beats! Fear, relief, joy, and so on. Run out of shotgun ammo, spot a case on the other side of the room, try to dodge enemy fire as you hop over there, only to be confronted by a monster while reloading, so you switch to your pistol and fire at him desperately, and he drops just short of stomping you. Story.

Decision + Action = Story

So then the question becomes “how do I convey the vibe I want?” Well, that’s all about aesthetics. Not just artistic aesthetics, but mechanical aesthetics. If you want players to hunker down in cover, let players regain health while hiding. If you to encourage player desperation, use health kits, so players can only heal if they find the right item. These things all change the emotional qualities of a game’s design. If you want to check out some great mechanical storytelling, look at Dead Space 2 and notice how it handles things like movement, health systems, and inventory. Dead Space 3 was less scary because of the changes it made to a lot of those mechanics.

Pacing can influence this too. I already mentioned Gears of War 3, Act 1, but it bears repeating. Play that to see how wonderfully it changes things up every few minutes. It’s brilliant at keeping players engaged.

The End Is Nigh

So, uh. Yeah. We should probably draw this puppy to a close.

If you were looking for a solution to storytelling in games, I’m not sure this is the right piece. Most of what I’ve done throughout is talk about how games can’t do things other mediums can do, and how the assumption that having lots of exposition makes a game narrative heavy is flawed. I hope I’ve illustrated ways that games can tell stories that aren’t just “let’s drop exposition on players.”

Maybe if you’re working on a conversation system in a game, you can look at the bit where I criticized dull, over the shoulder systems, and you figure out a way to make conversations more dynamic. Most of the things I’ve thought about require more animations and hard work, but I’m positive there’s a solution out there.

If you leave this piece with anything, here’s what I hope you take away:

Games are at their best when players are engaged. Engagement is best made through a series of interesting decisions and a compelling reason to make those decisions — what we call “motive” in storytelling. It’s not “I want to get more XP,” it’s “I want to know what made that scary noise,” or “I have to catch the murderer before he kills again.”

Battleborn is a game where the bad guy is… what, a jerk? Borderlands 2, by the same developers, Gearbox, was way more compelling, because the bad guy ends up kidnapping and murdering your friends, torturing his own daughter, maintaining that he’s the hero the entire time, and building monuments to his heroism. In Borderlands 2, you act because you feel defiant.

Because, really, games are all about emotions.

I think one of gaming’s biggest weaknesses is that it prioritizes “wow” or slimy psychological compulsion techniques to push players forward, but emotion is the greatest motivator. People enjoyed beating GLaDOS in Portal because she brought out defiance in players. Players act when they want to make up for mistakes they’ve made or get revenge. They act because they want to. If you want to tell a game story, all you really have to do is make them feel what you want them to feel so strongly that they choose to move forward.

I want to play games with characters I connect with. Wolfenstein: The New Order featured charismatic allies and juicy enemies. Max Haas brought out pity in me. Caroline Becker inspired admiration. My own character, BJ Blazcowicz, kept me on task with his quiet strength. I hated Frau Engel with all the fire I had in me; killing her lover, Bubi, while she watched is one of the most satisfying things I have ever done.

Gears of War 3 won me over with a massive seven hour gameplay session. My friend, Fist, screamed for help when he died, but I was so terrified of dying to the gigantic Brumak that I misunderstood Fist’s cries and ran in the wrong direction, allowing him to die. I used Fist’s weapon to take out most of the boss’s health, but then he killed me. That left one friend, Salvador, to run around the map, taking potshots at the Brumak. Those last few minutes were some of the most tense in my life. When Salvador downed the Brumak, I’m not ashamed to say my screams of joy were louder than they’ve ever been.

Sometimes, I need a good story. The Witcher 3 featured several quests that were fascinating because they were so intimate and personal, but at every step, its decisions actually mattered. Outcomes could change tremendously based on what happened. It also featured conversations that were more than mere over-the-shoulder discussions. I completed The Witcher 3 this year, and I felt so sad when it ended, because of its rich and personal story. I don’t think I would have played The Witcher 3 if it was a sandbox without the context of its story. That it left most of the narrative decisions up to the players was wonderful.

Ah, well. I’m rambling. It’s done. Just remember these four things: Emotion, engagement, context, interesting decisions.

Update 12/3/16: Please read my brief follow-up (9 min instead of 38, according to Medium dot com) here.

Based on these two tweet rants.

It has been pointed out to me that I should link my Patreon, so hey, if you’re interested in helping me write more of this stuff, please, by all means, back me over here: https://www.patreon.com/stompsite

GB 'Doc' Burford

Written by

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and make indie games like Paratopic.

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