LudiqueWorks Media
Published in

LudiqueWorks Media

Storytelling: What Makes Games Unique?

Before we dive right into this avalanche of precious knowledge, let’s start by appreciating Simon Jones for sharing his time on the 13th of June 2020. It was a Saturday morning which would have found most of us otherwise sleeping. The sacrifice was worth it as he shared great insights about storytelling for games with the AGD ( Africa Game Developers) Community online.

Simon Jones is a UK based Writer with an inclination to novel writing. He has dabbled with writing for interactive fiction and a couple of his projects can be found on Twine, an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories. He started off by posing the question “What makes games unique?” which he answered at the end of his presentation. So without further ado, let’s dive in.

Dear Esther is a first-person game that is close to what you would think of in first-person literature. That is because the player is expected to do very little and there is much more internal monologue going on. The story is given more prominence than game mechanics.

The image above is the classic story plot arc structure seen in movies or books. In games, you don’t have anything like this because the pacing will depend on what the player wants to do. The writer has very little control over how the player will interact with the story. It’s very difficult to make the players take the emotional parts of the game’s story seriously because they are usually trying hard to accomplish a specific task.

There are certain developers who are trying to tackle this, for instance Thatgamecompany that made a game called Journey. They heavily restrict what the player can do and the interactions of the players amongst each other. This means that the story can carry on without too much interference. This is very effective in terms of storytelling but it is limiting to the player’s game-play experience. And depending on a player, this might be detrimental.

This is better explained in the situation where the players of the game Spec Ops: The Line are forced to commit a horrific war crime that they could not avoid in order to proceed with the game-play. A lot of players internationally did not like that because they said if that was them they would not have done that thus they should have been given the choice not to do it. However, the game was trying to make a point that in war, bad things happen.


Approach 1. Using games to tell stories

In this case, telling a story is your primary objective; you have a story you want to tell and you have chosen games as a medium to tell the story. Mass Effect games are a great example of this type of approach. The player can create their own character which gives a very personal experience. Simon designed the character shown above and he played as that character in all 3 games. No one else could play with that character. This is something only games can achieve because when you watch a movie, you usually see the same characters — whereas, in games, players can personalize the characters.

In Life is Strange the player gets stories that are gated by puzzles. The game design works in tandem with the story. The story suffers if the player bumps on a puzzle they cannot solve, bringing us back to what we learned about the difference between storytelling in literature and storytelling in games. The only skill you need in order to keep on engaging with a story in a book is the ability to read but in games, you need multiple skills.

Another example of this kind of structure is adapting other forms into games: this is where you use an already existing story that is in either a book or movie version to create a game. 80 Days by Inkle is an example of a sleek elegant interactive fiction piece that was adapted from a novel. It gives you the feeling of reading a novel but you are more in charge of what is happening. Simon highly recommended this to anyone interested in branching narratives.

Approach 2. Using story to enhance the game

This is a situation where you have a great game already and you want to apply story elements to enhance it. Subnautica is a fantastic example of these kinds of games. They had a great survival game, an amazing world to explore and interesting interactions with the environment to survive and build new things. It did not really need a story but they hired a good writer anyway who crafted a story into this world. The story improved all the players’ interactions and experiences in the game. This made everything more satisfying.

Emergent storytelling is a situation where there is no script and the player is the storyteller. These kinds of stories usually feel personal, unique and worth retelling. This is because the stories only happen to individual players like in the case of the game Subnautica. Therefore, unlike in situations where the game stories are all the same, in such situations the players have different and unique stories to share with one another from the same game. It’s important to note that in these kinds of games if you remove the story the game will still work.

Approach 3. Unified writing and design

This is where the story and mechanics of the game are inseparable. In a game like Witcher 3, what the player can do depends on what the player’s character — a monster hunter — would do. So you never do anything that changes who the character is supposed to be.

Environmental storytelling is where the player discovers the story in an optional manner and they can engage with it as much or as little as they want. This gives the impression of the world existing beyond the player’s actions. Half-Life 2 is a great example of this where by just observing the environment, you start to figure out the story of what’s happened there. Very little of the story is told in cutscenes and dialogue. This gives the player a feeling of accomplishment when they figure things out on their own because it is totally up to them where they go and what they explore — unlike in movies where you are directed by the Cinematographer.

Input storytelling is where the use of a gamepad helps in telling the story Brothers is a great example of this where, as a player, you are expected to play two characters with one controller because it is a single-player game. Therefore, you control each character with one thumb. At some point, one of the brothers is taken away and you physically feel their loss because it’s clear that one of your thumbs is not being used anymore.

Simon finished his presentation by referring to the initial question he posed in the beginning “What makes games unique?”. His answer, “Honestly everything, and that is what makes them so exciting but what makes games great is matching the narrative genre with the mechanical genre.” He also went on to point out that all forms of storytelling are interactive therefore it’s not necessarily interactivity that makes games unique. As soon as you start telling a story, the audience starts interacting and interpreting it in their own way.


Are successful games pegged to the fact that you always have to have a great storyline or a game designed without a story can still be successful?

Most people would much rather have a great game with a little bit of story or none at all because the more story there is in a game, the more annoying it can be at times. Simon loves games with stories but it helps if the story is interacting with the game. If the story is good and the game is not, most people would much rather go watch a movie or read a book. The game should come first and the amount of story that goes into it depends on what you want to do with it.

Could you share the differences between the first, second, and third-person perspectives in giving a story in a game?

The first-person point of view is written from the point of view of the character. Things like I walked down the road and I did this — you get to hear their thoughts directly as if you were them. In gaming, first-person is when you are seeing directly in the eyes of the person you are playing. An example of a first-person game is Call of Duty.

The second-person perspective is quite unusual in literature because it can feel awkward. This is where it is written along the lines you do this and you do that. It even goes to the extent of telling you what you are thinking. However, in games this feels natural because it is you as the player that would be referred to by the narrator/ writer of the game with the second person pronouns you, your, and yours. This usually comes as a form of feedback after you do something in the game and as a result, something else happens. In a book, it feels strange because as a reader you are aware that you do not have the ability to change things in a book unlike in a game.

The second person perspective is mostly seen in interactive fiction e.g. you can go to the north or to the south. It is also seen in role-playing games when you are updated on combat stats and told you beat the enemy.

A third-person perspective is when the viewpoint is outside the character. In a book you could see the story from the perspective of many characters directly e.g this character went to do this. In games, the third person is where visually you see your character and the camera is just behind them or just over their shoulder in a God-like fashion.

At what point does storytelling come in the development of a game?

It depends on the team of developers. In big AAA games usually, the Writers come in fairly late in development and their purpose is to add flavor to what the developers are doing. The story is added to whatever the game already happens to be. In smaller Indie games, quite often the writer is there from the start and there will be more interaction between the writers and the designers.

Where do you draw the line when it comes to storytelling for games especially when the story can potentially offend the player?

It’s not good to obsess about the audience and how they are going to react because you will be second-guessing and censoring yourself. If you want to tell a story you have to stick to what you think is the point of that story, otherwise, you will end up with something flat and mediocre because you are trying not to offend anybody. It doesn’t matter how good the story is — there will always be people who do not like it.

In Indie Development, the budget is of concern and animation can be expensive so some people might decide to use text to carry the plot. What are the pros and cons of using text and is animation worth it when you have budget concerns?

Text is proven in history as a great way of telling stories, therefore for Indie Developers on a budget text is basically free. Well written text is professional and engaging and works pretty well whereas animated characters and voice acting have to be perfect or it’s terrible and that is kind of a big risk. It is therefore important to be aware of one’s scope and not be too sophisticated in one’s presentation only to fall short. It’s better to scale back and do it very well.

Cloudpunk is an interesting Indie game that is text-based with voiced acting. The quality of the voice is varying with parts that are good and parts that are not very good. Simon thought that it might have been better if they just used text without the voice-over part. The game 80 days is only text-based and it is really effective because the writing is exquisite.

How is the abstraction of game input used as an advantage in input storytelling?

This is less common because it is very hard to do. The game Brothers is a great example of this. Most games tend to ignore the physical things the player does. In the case of Brothers, it takes a while to figure out how to control both brothers on one gamepad.It’s difficult to train your brain to do it but in a few hours you figure it out. So later on when one of the characters is taken away, your brain feels the difference. The developers of Brothers acknowledged that the player would feel the difference when all of a sudden they are not using one side of the gamepad.

Something that gets really interesting in this space is VR when controllers become a representation of your hands. The Oculus Quest does hand tracking so that you don’t need to use controllers. Instead, you get to see your fingers and hands in the 3D space opening new storytelling options for developers because you don’t rely on a player’s ability to use a controller. In VR environments, mundane activities are made interesting. For instance, opening a door actually feels like opening a door in real life only now you are in a fantastical environment

When crafting the story, is it advisable to collaborate with the developers to include the game mechanics in the narrative?

Whenever possible; that is what brings the best results because they get woven together and become one thing. Whereas if a story comes later, it is rarely as effective. The earlier you can get a writer on board the better.

How do you choose which type of storytelling you’ll use in your game?

The first thing one should do is understand the audience they are going for and whether or not their skill set will allow them to easily consume the story while enjoying the gameplay because they can figure their ways through the different levels in the games.

What is interactive storytelling and how does it differ from storytelling?

Interactive fiction refers to when the player can directly impact the way the story is told rather than being a linear set text that you read from start to finish. Instead, you have points where you can make decisions and it changes the story in a big way. When writing branching mono-linear text you need to get used to putting a lot of information in your head, while in a linear book when writing a novel, everything is in an order that makes sense and there’s only one story-line to keep track off. But in a story that branches, you want to make all those branching options as satisfying to the player as the other ones. That way the player does not feel like any one of those decisions is the wrong decision and that is where it gets really challenging. So instead of writing one novel, you are writing hundreds of them and any given player will only encounter one of those routes in one play-through.

What would be your advice to Indie devs, is it to put emphasis on the story or to concentrate on other aspects of the game?

The focus should always be on the game because you can have the best story in the world but if it is attached to a boring game then that will damage the story. Whereas when you have an amazing game, the story can only come in to make it better.

And on that note, Simon ended with a tip. Check the credits of films with stories you loved watching to get the Writers’ names so that you can look for them online, follow them on their social media, read their blogs, and all that jazz to tap into their genius. You can find Simon on Twitter as @tarnimus and on his website

Resources Shared:

Presentation slides

Jon Ingold podcast (essential listening!!)

Kelsey Beachum podcast

Tom Jubert (Writing process here)

Catch Full Video here

LudiqueWorks is a video game publishing and video game development company based out of Africa. With a network of 150+ studios in 30 countries across Africa.

LudiqueWorks invests in nascent video game development studios on the continent through training and funding, as well as building a growing video gaming community through the Africa Game Developers network.

For more information, Follow Us: Twitter, Facebook & reach us via email on:



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Wendi Mutisya

Wendi Mutisya

Also known as @wendiartit I’m passionate about the fusion of art and tech. I have a keen interest in games & the power of gamification. Blog: