Telling a Story with Gameplay Alone
The unique power of atmospheric storytelling
We all know someone who just mashes skip the second a cutscene comes up — and perhaps we’ve been that person. Sometimes you’re just in the mood for gameplay, not all these relentless talky bits. Is it possible for that person to still experience the story of the game they’re playing? In a well crafted game, where gameplay and storytelling are blended together as they should be, I would say emphatically yes.
Whether games appear to be or not, even the most simplistic or lowest common denominator games are telling stories. You just might not always notice, or chalk it up to something else like “having an experience” because storytelling doesn’t seem to quite fit. Even games that offer a simple objective and a puzzle or obstacle to overcome before the “winning screen” can offer unique, evocative story experiences by leveraging gameplay to serve atmospheric storytelling.
What is atmospheric storytelling?
One of my favorite examples of atmospheric storytelling through gameplay alone is the indie game Papers Please. The game is sometimes marketed as a dystopian paperwork simulator, which is a fairly apt descriptor of the actual mechanics of the gameplay. You are the checkpoint guard at an international border and it is your job to clear or refuse entry to those applying, adapting to an increasingly complex set of rules handed down by your superiors with each passing day.
The game features little in the way of flavor text that is not either the newspaper with your rules for the day, your rules booklet, the text speech of those that come up to your booth, and the big white text on a black background screen that serves as your “home base” detailing the health of your family and your current money reserves. The only direction you receive is this: do your job. It is left up to the player how best to accomplish that.
For the entirety of the game, you are just a paper pusher. Checking passports, verifying the dates on entry tickets, and hunting down minor paperwork discrepancies. Surely a game based on paperwork ought to be the most boring game in the world? And yet, Papers, Please has won just about all the awards and is a much beloved indie darling.
Why? Because the story of the game is gripping and tense from the start, offering constant choice while the mechanics of the game make it nearly impossible to be a “good person” in the moment. The game casts you in the role of border guard for an oppressive regime and the gameplay sets about doing everything in its power to make you feel uniquely helpless. You are not some grand hero, you are just a guy in a checkpoint booth, trying to keep yourself alive.
That panic you feel for a bunch of white text on a black screen when you didn’t do a good enough job to be able to afford heat and food for your family? That’s the power of atmospheric, interactive storytelling.
There’s a reason some of the easiest places to see the strength of atmospheric storytelling in video games is in the horror or dystopian genre, like Alien: Isolation or the Silent Hill series. In Alien: Isolation it is not actually possible to kill or meaningfully stop the titular xenomorph that spends the whole game pursuing you, but if you are canny enough you can craft items to distract it while you crouch walk into hiding behind anything that’ll break line of sight of the monster hunting you.
Alien: Isolation has some of the best crafted tension that I’ve ever experienced, in any form of media. The scarcity of resources and threat of instant death already create a tense atmosphere, and the xenomorph stalking you only ratchets that up to eleven. The protagonist of the game spends the entire runtime terrified — and so do you, the player. Her hard fought triumphs are yours, because the gameplay makes them difficult. You don’t need to see her crying or having a panic attack in the cutscene to get that she’s scared, because you’re already feeling it. The gameplay and the story in the cutscenes bolster one another. Compare this with a game such as Gears of War where the story tries to tell of unrelenting, all encroaching, never ending horror of an alien invasion while in the gameplay you are cutting through Locusts with a chainsaw gun.
Not to disparage the chainsaw gun, of course! Only to say that, while awesome, the chainsaw gun lessens the impact of the story the developers clearly meant to tell, of the “war is hell”, with the cutscenes gritty and the gameplay displaying the unending fun of consequence-free carnage, as if the gameplay and story were kept in two different rooms with an all too solid wall between them. Of course people can (and should) still enjoy these stories, but they are absolutely not making the most of the medium if the gameplay isn’t also serving the story to the fullest. I was never quite afraid of the aliens in Gears of War, for all the cutscenes told me I should be. The cutscenes in Alien: Isolation didn’t tell me to be afraid of the xenomorph, I was already jumping at my own shadow wandering around the incredibly atmospheric Sevastopol.
Atmospheric storytelling in games with no flavor text
What about games without cutscenes? Through gameplay alone, the unique interactive natural of video games can absolutely impart an emotional experience, and one with a message as strong as any novel or film. They also do not need flavor text or really any words on screen at all to do so.
One of the earliest and best examples of gameplay storytelling came from the arcade-game Missile Command from Atari. In it, you are defending your home from a never ending onslaught of nuclear missile attacks, desperately trying to shoot the missiles out of the sky to protect your cities. Unlike most arcade games, there is no win-state for this game. It simply keeps going and going, until eventually even the best players lose the war of attrition against the onslaught of nuclear war.
Missile Command embodied the Cold War nightmare the world lived in. I had nightmares about nuclear attacks. During that time, I lived near Moffett Field, where the Air Force would randomly launch spy planes, which made a tremendous roar when taking off. I’d wake up, and while half asleep, hear the launch sounds and for a moment wonder if it was an atomic blast. (via Polygon)
The cities are purposefully not named, the landscape two bit, so the player is able to project onto the screen whatever cities they wish to defend, their hometown perhaps. The nuclear onslaught does not end, there is no “winning” Missile Command in the traditional sense. Instead of casting the player in the traditional role of hero, allowing the player to fire back and righteously defend their homeland from the onslaught, instead all the player can do is fight a losing battle against an unyielding enemy — and be unable to stave off the horror of losing city after city to nuclear annihilation.
From the creator himself, the ending of Missile Command — which replaced a game over screen with the bold words THE END — was meant to signal a primal reaction in gamers. The end. All is lost. This is and never will be a winner.
That’s good, impactful, important storytelling. Missile Command utilizes the unique format of the interactive medium to its fullest, simply using the design of the gameplay. The player cannot fight back and their increasing desperation mirrors that of a potential actual defender in such a situation, culminating in utter helplessness as they lose everything they worked for. There have been other games that have done this, imparting an emotional story if not a complex one — games like Limbo and FTL: Faster Than Light come to mind — but Missile Command is a masterclass of how even simple games can leverage the format and tell the player a story, whether they seem to be or not.
The future of storytelling and games
The recent glut of battle royale and multiplayer first person shooters has lead to a lot of think piece hand-wringing about the future of story based video games. Traditionally roleplaying based studios like Bioware are being pressured to put in more multiplayer focused features(read: more lootboxes and microtransaction focused features) and with critical and sales failures stacking up, the idea seems to be that story based games are a thing of the past, relegated to indie games, because they’re too expensive to recoup that investment when there’s money to be made off of Fortnite or Overwatch or whatever the latest battle royale game of the week is.
But, here’s the thing. That’s an incredibly narrow way of looking at the power of narrative design in video games. While games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect or the Last of Us are more traditionally structured sometimes seemingly occasionally interactive movies, they are not the be all, end all of story telling in games. Fortnite and Overwatch and, yes, even battle royale video games are creating unique storytelling experiences, the difference being that they rely on gameplay more.
A recurring theme is how the player is cast. Are they a helpless defender, doomed to failure? Are they a survivor, sneaking through a seemingly malicious station? Are they a border guard, having to make tough choices daily? At the most simplistic level, the good games, the really successful ones, cast the player in a role, then give them a goal and obstacles to overcome.
The power is in the feeling the player walks away from the game with, the same as with books or movies. Storytelling is an emotional experience, and video games are among the most unique ways ever devised to impart that experience on the audience.