3 approaches to storytelling in games
I was asked to give a talk comparing storytelling in games and literature by Access Creative College. This article is based on that talk — you can read the first part here. This article contains some spoilers, primarily for the game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
Last time I wrote about genre and perspective in games, compared to prose fiction. Now it’s time to take a closer look at how games can be used to tell stories, exploring why it’s such an exciting, diverse and unusual medium.
It’s almost impossibly hard to define what a game ‘is’, which is testament to how fascinating it is as a form of artistic expression. Easier to identify are storytelling techniques in games, of which there are at least three distinct versions. These all boil down to the intersection of story with game design, and how that balance is weighted.
#1 Using games to tell your story
The priority here is to tell a story: that is the primary goal of the project, with games chosen as the delivery mechanism for the story. It’s likely that the story concept was the inception of the project.
The Mass Effect trilogy is arguably an example of this form of storytelling. The games shifted their mechanical approach drastically over the course of three games, while retaining the same focus on story. The detailed role playing elements of the first game were considered to be relatively unimportant for the sequels. Other game elements such as driving vehicles and scanning planets for resources came and went with each game: these were story games first and foremost, with the developers experimenting with how to fit game mechanics around their story.
While the games never quite settled on what kind of game they wanted to be, they did succeed in fully exploring the empathic potential of having a player-crafted protagonist. The lead character’s behaviour and morality could be heavily influenced by the player, as could their physical appearance. Games such as these are unique among other mediums for allowing players to define their entry point: while movies are still struggling with representation, but in 2012 Mass Effect let you choose gender and skin colour and have that person be the hero of your story.
By the time I reached the end of the final game in the trilogy, ‘my’ Shepard had heavily imprinted on me, in a similar way to building a familiarity with an actor on a long-running TV show. That I wouldn’t see my Shepard appear in other games, playing other roles, struck me as sad and peculiar: I knew that the Shepard character was a fictional construct, but the digital representation had entered the same part of my brain reserved for real, human performers.
The GTA series began as a runabout, action-packed slice of anarchy with minimal storytelling. Over the years, as the technology powering the games has improved dramatically, so has the narrative ambitions of the developers. Unfortunately, the storytellers seem entirely at odds with the nature of their own game: GTA stories are notorious for their disconnect with what is actually fun about GTA games, instead being vehicles for the developers to slavishly reference every gangster movie they watched as a teenager.
The story could be extracted from GTA games and presented as TV shows with minimal alterations: this, really, is the litmus test when it comes to this form of game storytelling — if player agency is entirely ignored in the narrative thrust, then why bother telling that story in the form of a game?
The point-and-click genre fits neatly into the narrative-first approach to game design. Compare any of the 1990s point-and-click output from LucasArts (and most of their imitators) and it becomes very apparent that the games are largely identical; the only differences being the specifics of each story. The SCUMM engine was developed specifically as a storytelling tool: the framework remains the same with each title. As a tool for rapidly generating interactive stories it was efficient and evocative. The integration of exploration and puzzles into the story encouraged the player to invest heavily in the world, in turn making the story more memorable, but the experience of progressing through the stories remained almost identical.
The point-and-click has evolved into various forms, recently expressed quite clearly in Life is Strange. This is another good example of a game which puts story first, with the mechanical actions taken by the player playing only a secondary role. The structure of the story is interrupted by puzzles, while also following the lead of The Walking Dead games in providing a lightly branching narrative.
As with the original point-and-clickers, Life is Strange has a slightly awkward duality: while story is the primary reason it exists, the requirement to add elements of player agency result in puzzles which actively gate the story. In its best moments these provide escalations of tension, especially effective in dialogue, while in others the player is left wandering around aimlessly, attempting to second-guess the designer.
Life is Strange’s story is at its best when the ‘game’ gets out of the way, which does raise the tricky question of whether it would have served that story better in another form, such as a television series. On the other hand, when the dialogue choices and branching story work in unison it creates a heightened experience unlike anything in linear mediums. Perhaps the mistake is in having fail states and progress-halting puzzles, rather than an adaptive story — a big challenge in game storytelling generally is how the game has a tendency to interrupt itself, sabotaging its own story either through design flaws or a lack of player skill.
I’ve raised the question of whether some of these examples should even be games, or whether they’d work better in another form, such as a novel or a movie. Where this becomes a more complicated question is in the form of adaptations.
What happens when a book, movie, comic or other item is adapted into game form? Even if story is the motivating factor, you’d hope that there was a decent reason for translating it into a game in the first place.
Back in the 80s and 90s, adaptations tended to be based on movies (with the exception of some notable interactive fiction projects). In fact, every blockbuster movie had to have a tie-in game, despite games back then being woefully incapable of recreating what was happening in cinema. E.T. is a notorious example but you’ll find equally odd adaptations of Robocop, Back to the Future and Batman.
That’s not really what I’m referring to here, though — games based on movies are surprisingly rare these days (how is there not a mega-franchise of Marvel movie tie-ins?), outside of Star Wars, but what we do have are things like this:
80 Days is an imaginative adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days, passed through a steampunk filter and presented as a massively branching global adventure in which the player chooses their own path around the globe. It’s expansive, interconnected and hugely replayable, not to mention beautifully written.
Being predominantly text-based this is heavy on story but the developers Inkle found a structure within which to incorporate a huge amount of player agency and non-linearity. There’s a palpable sense of adventure! throughout and it captures the spirit of the source material while doing its own thing. I suspect having that source as inspiration helped them to marry their story to the game itself: they wouldn’t have embarked on the creation of 80 Days without thinking they had something to add to Jules Verne’s original.
Another recent and obvious adaptation to mention is the Witcher trilogy, but I’m going to get to those later. They don’t quite fit into this section.
This design approach boils down to this thought experiment:
If you removed ‘the game’, would the story still work?
#2 Using story to enhance your game
The next design approach to consider is when story is used to improve and deepen a game’s systems. To take a recent and exceedingly accomplished example:
Subnautica was developed in public over several years, with its early access version lacking much of a story for a considerable portion of that development. Given its huge success even while in early access, it clearly didn’t need a story: people were already enjoying the game.
As a very free-form survival adventure with heavy emphasis on resource gathering, exploration and personal expression through base building, Subnautica already had the core loops it needed to engage players. Combined with the undersea world’s intense and varied atmosphere, the game was already self-generating stories through player actions. A player’s first foray into the depths in a submarine they’d just built made for a compelling story even without any scripted or authored moments.
I never played it during this time, partly because I do like a good story — and I’m also historically appalling at survival games. I didn’t think it would hold my interest, or provide me with enough incentive to keep playing.
Once it hit official release in early 2018 an entire story framework had been integrated into the game, overlaid onto the world and woven into all of its systems and activities. The story is a masterclass in open world storytelling structure and should serve as a template to any developer attempting something similar:
- Story delivery is directly tied to player actions
- The story very rarely forces you to do anything; instead, it is layered on top of things you are already be doing in the game
- The pacing is loose and slow, providing plenty of space for players to generate their own mini-stories without feeling like they should get back to the ‘main quest’
- In fact, the story can’t be described as a ‘main quest’ in the same way as, say, the central storyline in an Elder Scrolls game: your personal, emergent story in Subnautica will always be far more memorable than the scripted words
- What it does do is provide context and flavour, deepening the mechanical systems and enriching the atmospheric setting
- The structure is decidedly non-linear, with story elements unlocking at the player’s pace and dependent on what they do and where they explore
- Story elements are distributed, with the player discovering them like clues — it’s largely up to the player to join the dots, with their experience of the story being the point at which their own actions and imagination intersect with the authored moments
I mentioned earlier how the GTA games have stories which actively work against the design of the game, often feeling like they’re developed by entirely separate teams and then thrown together at the last moment. GTA games have hilarious emergent gameplay and expansive worlds, chained to linear and derivative stories which actively restrict the player.
Imagine a GTA game which accommodates the above observations on Subnautica’s story. A GTA game which has all the detail and depth of a Rockstar world, but which distributes its story in a non-linear, player-discovered structure akin to Subnautica. It would similarly deepen and enrich the GTA world, rather than reducing it.
It’s always the emergent, systems-based stories that people recount to friends. Nobody talks about the scripted story moments in a GTA or Call of Duty game, because they’re the same for everyone — that’s what movies are for and much better at doing.
In the world of procedural games, Heat Signature stands out as being particularly successful at weaving story into its generated action-puzzle levels. There’s no particular need for Heat Signature to have story: it would work fine if you were an anonymous Space Person repeatedly invading spaceships and stealing stuff. Even the space setting is largely superfluous — it could just as easily be underwater, for instance.
Instead, the dev layers in character and world detail, with each playable character having a motivation (“Rescue my son who has been kidnapped!”) and sparse dialogue and object descriptions giving clues to the setting. Much of this is also procedurally generated, including character names. These story elements again add context and flavour, even when they don’t impact on anything mechanically.
Sneaking through a series of rooms and stealing a nondescript object isn’t nearly as exciting as rescuing your kidnapped son, even though mechanically there is no difference as far as the game is concerned. Heat Signature uses these low-key cues to trigger player imaginations, turning each spaceship incursion into a genuine mini-story — that it does this through procedural shenanigans is all the more impressive. In this case, it was critical that the story be kept minimalist, so that it didn’t interfere with the core of the game.
Into the Breach takes a similar route, layering on a huge amount of incidental dialogue to its turn-based monster battles. None of it is strictly necessary, but it creates mystery and personality, especially in the case of the pilots, where their dialogue cleverly supports their abilities and play style.
As a game lauded for its incredibly tight design, Into the Breach would be juts as fun without the dialogue pop-ups from the mechs and buildings, but it’s that extra context which gives meaning to the player’s actions and makes us feel good about saving buildings, beyond gaining additional points.
Into the Breach has been compared to Chess more than once. It’s worth noting that Chess is a classic example of a perfectly designed game which has no need for story, and yet describes its playing pieces as ‘kings’ and ‘knights’. That transforms a chessboard from an abstract series of player pieces with specific abilities to a battlefield.
To take one last example, Red: Faction Guerrilla is an interesting counterpoint to GTA. The developers were acutely aware of what they had created: namely, the ability to destroy buildings in a huge variety of imaginative, tactile and visually stunning ways. Rather then try to restrict and contain the player in order to tell a separate story, instead they devised a tale which specifically embraces the game’s core technology: you are a freedom fighter/terrorist tasked with literally demolishing the infrastructure of a totalitarian regime. It is your job to blow things up. It’s not subtle, and the destruction would be every bit as fun without any story, but it’s a very effective marriage of mechanics and narrative.
If you removed the story, would the game still work?
#3 Unified writing and design
At last we come to the third design approach. This third design approach is defined by story and mechanical design being inseparable. It’s time to talk about The Witcher 3.
I nearly put the Witcher games under the first design approach, which is ruled by story, and that’s probably where Witcher 1 and Witcher 2 belong. The third game in the series does something slightly different.
I talked about adaptations earlier and the Witcher games are, of course, adapted from Sapkowski’s original books and stories. That immediately makes them interesting, as the stories had already been told in their optimum form. To bother making three increasingly ambitious games, CD Projekt RED must have felt they had something to add.
The slight of hand with the Witcher 3 is that its game design is spun out of the lead character’s personality and background. Everything you do in the game is derived from his character: gathering herbs, only using a horse for travel, fighting with two swords, using potions to enhance your abilities, remaining a largely reluctant independent rather than being The Chosen One, travelling nomadically from place-to-place, taking contracts to hunt monsters.
The fiction supports what you can do in the game, and vice versa. RPGs frequently suffer from deep contradictions in their systems and stories: why does the Chosen One in Bioware games, whether in Dragon Age or Mass Effect, have to bother themselves with busywork collecting herbs and doing shopping? Why does Shepard have to buy weapons from his own people? Why in Elder Scrolls games do you spend so much time killing rats and running errands for people, when you’re supposed to be Saving The World?
The developers realised that their game was about Geralt of Rivia, a defined character already established in the books, and they embraced that as a design principle which then rippled out across all aspects of the game. It’s not really possible to break the illusion of playing as Geralt, even while the game exists as a huge, open world, 100+hour experience. It’s an internally consistent third person narrative in which every action the player takes is supporting and deepening their connection with the protagonist.
This is something DOOM (2016) uses to its advantage, with its forward-thrusting, aggressive verbiage creating the sense of a distinct player character. Notably, while DOOM features monsters and a horrific setting, your character is not intended to be scared or intimidated; if anything, the monsters are the ones who should be scared. In creating character and tone through design, the developers set DOOM apart from other games with on-paper similar designs — compare it to Alien: Isolation, for example, which shares the first person viewpoint, an intimidating, dangerous setting and roaming monsters.
Environmental storytelling exists in other mediums — in the panels of a comic book, or the set dressing of a movie — but it works particularly effectively in games, where it’s up to the player to pick out and observe those details. What Remains of Edith Finch tells a huge amount of its story through incidental information in the environment and, unlike a movie where the audience’s viewpoint is directly controlled, it’s up to the player to explore, investigate and discover (or not, as is their preference).
Half Life and especially its sequel Half Life 2 were pioneers in their area, delivering stories that were very light on actual dialogue or plot beats and instead focused on a slow reveal through the depiction of the world itself. It creates the sense of the world existing before you arrived, as well as the promise that it’l keep going once you’ve passed through. That verisimilitude, of it being an existing world in which the player is an almost accidental inclusion, is far closer to our understanding — or bewilderment — of the real world. It’s a rich form of storytelling which is hard to in other forms, except perhaps for immersive theatre.
Taking environmental storytelling a step further are the ‘immersive sims’, going back to Deus Ex and more recently the Dishonored series. These stories fully embrace the subtle environmental cues of Half Life, while adding highly authored, branching stories and the systems-based emergence of something like Heat Signature. These games tell largely linear stories — limited branching notwithstanding — but allow for extreme creative freedom from the player in how they get from Plot Point A to Plot Point B.
An interesting tangent in this form of storytelling was the Left 4 Dead series. This uses all the environmental storytelling techniques of the Half Life games — being from the same developer — but integrates it with an amusing cast of interacting characters, who have conversations and exchange one-liners throughout the game. The twist here is that it is a multiplayer co-operative game, with each survivor being played by a different player. The zombie setting works perfectly, even enabling low skill players to entertainingly play with high skill players: it simply reinforces the genre trope of the idiot character who wanders off and gets killed early in the movie.
What’s especially unusual about Left 4 Dead is that it had an AI-driven narrator of sorts, with the game tuning what was happening moment-to-moment in order to create atmosphere and tension. No two plays of the game would be the same, even while exploring the same areas, because the game was adjusting the pacing, structure and narrative behind-the-scenes. This enables the game to adapt to different player skill levels, in the process handling the problem of how to tell a effective story while also gating player progress.
Heading into the more unusual and indie end of the spectrum, there is Brothers. The story is linear and told via cut scenes, while the puzzles and challenges are pre-designed and offer little player invention. Ordinarily this would place the game squarely into Design Approach #1, but the game make a bold decision with its control mechanism, whereby it is a single player game in which you control two characters simultaneously.
Each brother is assigned a control stick and action button on the gamepad, and the early stages of the game are all about training your brain to be able to control two separate characters on screen at the same time. It feels a little like learning to play the piano. Over several hours you first become adept at the control mechanism, then it shifts into being entirely comfortable and natural: the left side of the controller, and thus your left hand, controls one of the brothers, the right side and your right hand controls the other.
At a critical, unavoidable point in the story one of the brothers is killed. It’s an emotional beat in the story, of course, and if the player has invested in the tale then they will have an empathic reaction. Immediately afterwards the game continues and it’s at this point that the game’s genius becomes apparent: suddenly you are no longer controlling one of the brothers, which means you’re no longer using one side of the controller. One of your hands still grips the controller, waiting and hoping to do something, but instead is no longer needed. As one of your hands continues to control the surviving sibling, your inactive hand not only feels extremely strange, it also emphasises and deepens the sense of loss.
This probably unique use of a controller to evoke an emotional reaction is something which could only happen with games. It’s possible that it can only ever happen with this game. Regardless, it’s an example of game mechanics being entirely in sync with the story.
Talking of which:
Winner of all sorts of fancy awards, Her Story presents you with an archive of police interview tapes, presented via a first person view of an old computer monitor. A crime has been committed and you’re trying to solve the case, but the story unfolds based entirely on your own intuition and ability to interpret what is happening and being said. It’s unusual in detective-based games in that you feel genuinely like you’re solving the crime through your own skill, rather than simply exploring the limited number of scripted solutions. The first person perspective is total and enveloping.
This is an approach previously explored in Papers, Please, back in 2013.
Like Her Story, the game employs an extreme, limited first person perspective. You are a border guard and your job is to process identification papers of people entering the country; much like Her Story, the moment-to-moment mechanics of what you’re doing are bureaucratic and quite dull, at least on paper.
The challenge of processing the queue of people mounts as more bureaucracy is added, time limits rush you and pay bonuses are awarded for each processed person. This combines with increasing stresses outside of the main game, as story nuggets are served up in-between shifts: your mother is ill, your son is hungry, your rent has increased…
This pressure then collides with moral choices and the player’s ethics, as options are presented to you which may affect your fortunes. Do you take a bribe to let through a dodgy gangster? What about letting an old man through who has the wrong papers, so that he can see his daughter? Repeatedly you’re forced into compromised decisions, beginning with small, insignificant lapses and then snowballing into regime-affecting decisions. The game shifts the player’s thinking from small, white lies to actions of major corruption.
Although the game uses your family situation as motivation to complete the daily bureaucratic tasks, the meta-narrative is attempting something far more ambitious. Papers, Please is an internalised examination of the journey towards authoritarianism. It is an exploration of how ordinary, kind people are slowly shifted towards fascistic tendencies — not because they are evil, or because they’re the Bad Guys, but through small, tiny shifts, over a long period of time. It shows how the tedium and supposed rationality of bureaucracy can inexorably push people into doing terrible things.
Most critically, it doesn’t do this by telling a story about someone else. The limited, first person view, which starves the player of outside context and trusted information, leads them down the path. It’s difficult to understand how people could support the Nazis — or any other authoritarian regime, historical or current — and countless school lessons and history programmes never quite succeeded in explaining it to me. Papers, Please didn’t have to tell me how that mental shift can happen to people: it did it to me, without me even noticing.
Thanks for reading! If you liked this, you can find out about my writing at simonkjones.com or drop me a thanks on ko-fi.com/simonkjones.