"Storytelling in video games." It's a popular topic on a certain corner of the internet, at industry conferences, as sponsored panel sessions at film festivals (and one you'd be forgiven for tiring of by this point, if you pay attention to those kinds of things. Bear with me.) These discussions tend to take the traditional, imposed (Hollywood, literary) narrative form as their presumed ideal, and consider how storytelling in games might "improve" to match it. This approach is about as useful as considering how we might advance the art of pantomime in filmmaking. One should not ask a game designer to tell them a great story; rather, the game designed should be judged on the player's ability to make his own stories within its mechanical framework.

One question in this context is just what qualifies as a story in the first place. Taking established authored forms as the standard, one assumes a story must have an organized beginning, middle and end; a dramatic arc, a climax, a denouement; it must measure up to a screenplay or a manuscript in scope, structure and gravity.

But let's assume that no story is too modest for consideration. Let's assume that any series of events one might find worth conveying to a friend constitutes a story. A story is an interesting thing that happened to me on the way home from work yesterday; it's how you met your wife; it's the events of one person's life, starting with a single-parent childhood and leading to the election of America's first black president. Scope, structure and gravity aren't necessarily important, though they may arise from the events entailed. What's important is that the story holds meaning for the person involved in it and the audience observing it-- in a video game, that's the player, one and the same.

Different games allow the player to make his own stories out of the gameworld in a variety of ways. These stories range from the humblest anecdotes to the most sweeping historical sagas. One might organize this potential as a hierarchy of storymaking in games:

Micro-level storymaking: unique moment-to-moment chains of occurence built up from the game's base mechanics. Most games that supply the player with a limited palette of expressive verbs engender this level of storymaking: Far Cry 2's gunfights, the Grand Theft Auto series' vehicular mayhem, BioShock's plasmid and weapon play, Dead Rising's plethora of implements for taking on the zombie mob, and so forth.

I decided to drive my jeep up over a hill. As I crested it I saw a group of mercenaries in the valley. I drove directly toward them and dove out of the jeep, letting it plow through the mercs just as they noticed me. I fluidly sprinted forward and slid towards the last couple of stragglers that had dodged the jeep, and handily finished them off with one full magazine of my silenced sub-machine gun. I hopped back in my jeep and continued on toward my destination.

Mid-level storymaking: exercising agency over which major fictional elements of the gameworld I experience, in what order. The gameworld is arranged at least in part as a web of potential experiences I may choose to engage with: exploring the wasteland in Fallout 3; deciding which missions to do in Grand Theft Auto; choosing how and whether to deal with civilians and the main plotline in Dead Rising; deciding whether to engage in Yakuza 2's side missions; choosing story branches in Deus Ex, etc.
I decided I was going to be the savior of Willamette Mall. While I advanced the plot's mystery if it was convenient, I would always ignore it in favor of finding and rescuing trapped civilians. By the end of day three, I'd been through hell gathering up dozens of survivors. We climbed aboard the helicopter and escaped, though the cause of the zombie outbreak remained a mystery. I'd decided that the lives of this group of individuals was more important to me.

High-level storymaking: the player determines what elements are present in the gameworld, and any narrative that happens there is entirely a collaboration between the player and the game's systems. The only fiction determined by the designer is the broad premise of the game's setting, and individual building blocks for potential outcomes. The Civilization series, SimCity, and The Sims exemplify this type of storymaking.
I decided to create a nice, tidy young man, and across town a lovely, good-natured young woman. They each advanced with some success in their respective careers, then met at a local restaurant. After a brief courtship, they married. They adopted two babies, who grew into happy schoolchildren. At this point I built a trailer in the neighboring lot, and created a happy-go-lucky slob of a young man to live there. He spent most of this time puttering around, playing guitar and looking through his telescope when he wasn't out delivering pizzas. After becoming friends with the nice couple next door, he would frequently burst into their house in the evening and humorously disrupt their routine with his wacky behavior. I'd decided my Sims would be the inhabitants of a standard network sitcom.

Note that none of these examples involve epic, expertly-crafted storylines handed down to the player by an author, or emotionally manipulative plot points thought up by a genius writer. But they are the kinds of stories that stand out most strongly in the player's mind after a game is finished. This is because video games are driven by the player, experientially and emotionally. Fictional content--setting, characters, backstory-- is useful inasmuch as it creates context for what the player chooses to do. This is ambient content, not linear narrative in any traditional sense. The creators of a gameworld should be lauded for their ability to believably render an intriguing fictional place-- the world itself and the characters in it. However the value in a game is not to be found in its ability at storytelling, but in its potential for storymaking.


CrashTranslation said...

I would never claim that storytelling in the classic sense is something games should strive for however I think storymaking is only one way games can be used to tell stories.

Consider Deus Ex, it has scope for both low and mid-level storymaking but for me at least the strength of the game lay not in my ability to create stories but in the ability of the game world, specifically its characters, to react to those stories. I have some low-level stories revolving around my actions in the first level that will stay with me forever but even more meaningful was having characters comment on the specifics of those actions. Being told off by my brother or Sam Carter for being overly violent is an experience I cannot have in any other medium. It is connected to the concept of storymaking, yes, but operates at a different level to those you outlined.

Another way in which games can be used to tell stories can be seen in System Shock 2. There is a central plotline, which is defined by the objectives you complete. It is engaging but is not something that can only work in an interactive medium. However in addition to this central plot there is the back-story of what happen onboard the Von Braun, and the ultimate fate of the people who lived there. Through exploration of the environment I am gradually able to piece together the events that preceded my awakening from cryo sleep. The information about such events are not presented in any traditional didactic fashion but are scattered throughout the environment in audio logs, ghostly vision, and mise-en-scene moments. I will never forget the actions of Security Chief Bronson because of the way in which I slowly uncovered the circumstances leading up to her death. I am not told explicitly what happened instead I work it out and piece together those events at my own pace, bringing my own prejudices and biases to it. By the end of the game I might have the same general idea of what happened as anybody else who played the game but the exact process by which I found out was uniquely my own.

Are either of those examples storymaking or are they something different but equally unique to games?

Steve gaynor said...

To be clear, I'm looking at "story" as "this happens, then this, then this." In traditional media, that's determined by the author; in games, it's best determined by the player. My take would be that the examples you cite are a couple of different things:

The Deus Ex examples are good reinforcement of what the player's done via character reaction, a form of systemic feedback. Creating convincing characters that acknowledge the player's actions is an excellent use of writing in games, and it's not storytelling.

The audio logs and mise-en-scene of System Shock 2 provide context for the player's experience-- the "setting, characters, backstory" alluded to above. These elements provide a base for the player's actions by describing events that occurred in this place's past. In a way these are self-contained story capsules, and effective ones. They act in service of the player's here-and-now, instead of overshadowing it.

CrashTranslation said...

A matter of differing definitions I see. Though I tend to prefer the term Plot to describe the explicit sequence of events that take place I absolutely agree on your description of the role of the designer. Their aim should be to define and contextualise the possibility space available not to strictly delimit what the player does and in what order.

That said I’ve personally found games that are too devoid of structure, and some degree of high level plotting to be less engaging. That’s where I think techniques and lessons from traditional media can come into play, by contextualising my actions into some overarching structure with a purpose beyond simply exploration and experimentation of the possibility space. Unfortunately the balance between too much and too little structure is one I find few designers have been able to successfully master.

carbon said...

I'm a little bit skeptical that this is necessarily always the best possible technique for expressing stories in games. Sometimes the mechanism of gameplay can be used to add a great deal to a story that really could be expressed more traditionally in film or writing.

For example, the Ace Attorney games are incredibly linear. There is exactly one story path you must follow, and deviation from it is actively discouraged.

The plot and characterization of these games might work quite well in other media. After all, the "whodunit" mysteries and courtroom battles of the game are a direct adaptation of the stories of TV shows like Perry Mason.

However, the interactive parts still add a great deal to the game. By making the player solve the puzzle, though there is only one correct, pre-ordained solution, the player gets the satisfaction (and, let me tell you, it is satisfying) of feeling clever and finding it, instead of just indirectly appreciating the portrayal of cleverness. The story only has one direction to move in, but the player is still emotionally involved in leading it along.

I chose the most linear game I could think of as an example here, to demonstrate that interactivity can add a lot even to "expertly-crafted storylines handed down to the player by an author". Is it absolutely necessary that the player have significant choice and influence on the story for the game's design to have value?

I certainly don't think that every game should manipulate and direct the player's story to the degree that Ace Attorney does, but is it necessarily always a bad design choice to do so?

Steve gaynor said...

Wouldn't you say you're simply describing explicit goals for the player to accomplish? Provided goals give the player a sense of direction and reward, but I wouldn't say they are synonymous with pre-authored plotting or storytelling.

CrashTranslation said...

On reflection I suppose I am. I guess we're arguing semantics at this point.

As you said, being led by the nose to perform Task A then B then C is hardly making the most of an interactive medium.

A well constructed fictional context for player actions can make it feel like even self directed play is in service of a larger goal or series of goals. Thus making you feel part of an overarching storyline.

Roger Travis (TinPeregrinus) said...

I like "storymaking" as a way of defining the role of the designer. For me it corresponds to the generations of bards who have laid the groundwork for the bard of a given night. It seems to me that while the designer, or the tradition, has given the opportunity for storytelling--that is, has made that opportunity--the player is the one who tells it in performance.

Thanks for the great post.

I think that structure can be applied from low to high, or, as I usually think of it, from the rails end of the continuum to the sandbox end.

Anonymous said...

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Clint said...


Another awesome post.

Two points:

First, I agree with you that 'storymaking' for lack of a better word is what matters here and I'm more than sick and tired of hollywood condescending to us and trying to help us understand how to TELL better stories... like, dudes - it's not that we don't it, it's that TELLING stories is not the fucking point. Grr.

However... I think you miss out on something important. I think it was EM Forster who said "The King died and then the Queen died is a story, but the King died and then the Queen died OF GRIEF is a PLOT" - and I think that is important.

We're really not bad at all at enabling 'storymaking'... stories as you say are little more than chains of events... but what it interesting and compelling is when the chains of events are causally connected by links defined by the human condition.

Your Far Cry 2 example is an interesting example of where we succeeded - at the low level of chaining events... but the important part where we FAILED in my opinion was at the higher levels where the broader actions that are causally connected by meaningful human motivations.

"I killed Gakumba and then I killed Kouassi" - whoopee-fuckin-doo - but "I killed Gakumba to help Kouassi take control in the North and then when Kouassi betrayed me, I tracked him down, shot his lackeys, found him on the side of the road wounded and chopped him to pieces with my machete and burned his fucking corpse to make sure everyone knew never to fuck with me or my friends..." - now that's something HUMAN, and I think that's what we need to be working toward with all this 'story making' (not that specific emotional swell - but that degree of depth and passion).

That's where we transition from 'plot' to 'story' as Forster describes it. I don't want games that offer me 'I killed Gakumba then I killed Kouassi for revenge that the author imbued into the story' - but I also don't want a meaningless choice between 'I killed Kouassi and then I killed Gakumba - OR - I killed Gakumba, then I killed Kouassi'. I want 'I killed a man for hire, and then butchered the man who hired and betrayed me out of hatred that came from inside ME'.

Second point: I think it is really interesting to read your 3 'stories' one of which is you in first person, the other is you as a player playing a character and decribing the role you were knowingly playing, and the third is you as a player playing all of the characters and describing the drama you were developing among them all.

What I wonder is if it is even possible to give the player a feeling of agency at the high level over the events of the game while he is embedded in play at the low level. It's an interesting dilemma.

Anyway - thanks for another hot post.

CrashTranslation said...

In my initial comment I was thinking along the lines of how you could provoke the human reaction that Clint talks about. The stories you create of your actions during play are powerful because they are uniquely and specifically yours. However in terms of their ability to provoke the kind of human urge for revenge, the motivations behind the actions, the associated context (provided by some degree of structured narrative elements) is important.
Look at each of the examples of storymaking Steve described, they all rely implicitly on a narrative context for your actions. Consider also my examples of Deus Ex and System Shock 2, because of the narrative context framing my actions I was able to experience an emotional response to the events portrayed. That response coloured my future actions influencing my own unfolding story, I had a motivation for behaving a certain way.
Where I feel game stories fall down is not in their ability to allow the player authorship of the specifics of events, rather in their ability to contextualise those events in a manner that evokes an emotional response. It’s this area of generation emotional attachment to a fiction world or character that literature and film have excelled at for decades. It’s in those ways where games can learn something, not from the telling (We can do that) but from the contextualising.

Steve gaynor said...

re: Clint, I had a few legitimately self-motivated experiences like the one you describe recently while playing Fallout 3. One quest near the beginning of the game involves a town that has been overrun by giant, fire-breathing ants. You find one teenage boy still alive-- the ants killed all his family and friends. Descending into the nearby sewers, you find that these were once docile (giant) ants, but that a scientist who's set up a lab there accidentally turned them into aggressive, fire-breathing ants with an experiment meant to revert them to their pre-bomb tiny size. He asks you to proceed into the queen ant's lair and plant a device which will, he promises, for real this time, turn the fire-breathers back into normal, tiny ants over successive generations. If you confront him with dialogue concerning all the townspeople who died, he brushes them off as the cost of scientific progress. Your objective is to end the ant infestation; authored choices are either kill the ant queen and her brood, or plant the device and sneak out, following the scientist's plan.

But I was mad. This asshole killed off an entire town leaving this poor orphan kid to fend for himself, all in the pursuit of some absurd scientific experiment, and he's completely callous about the loss of human life. Why the hell does he want to turn these monsters back into tiny ants? And over the course of decades? The ants' lives are more important than a community of humans? And now he wants me to risk my life for his own silly-ass ends?

I wrote in the third option by splattering his pompous, asinine head all over the wall with my sawed-off shotgun. Then I stomped out every last ant, and escorted the orphan safely to Rivet City.

In any case, my motivation here was visceral, personal, and motivated by the fictional context of the situation (as Justin notes) and allowed but not predetermined by the game's authors. The mode of expression may be coarse-- a guy was a jerk so I chose to kill him-- but it was a legitimate, self-motivated experience in that gameworld, the kind I'd love to have more often.

Steve gaynor said...

Another (sorry to go on) would be my approach to Alistair Tenpenny. I defused the bomb in Megaton and killed Mr. Burke when he threatened me. I then resolved to go speak to his boss at Tenpenny Tower concerning just what his plans for Megaton were, and what he planned to do now that Burke was dead and the bomb defused. On the way, I was assailed by a group of mercenaries labeled "hitmen." I looted one of their corpses and found a note ordering the hit on me-- signed by one Alistair Tenpenny.

Prior to this, I hadn't been resolved as to what I would do when I met Tenpenny. But upon reading that note I formulated the plan to walk into his office calmly, introduce myself, then blast the bastard to kingdom come. Which I was very satisfied to do, as I was to subsequently shoot my way out of the tower through Tenpenny's security forces.

There were authored seeds of motivation, but no imposed objectives stating how to deal with Tenpenny (or to do so at all.) Again a simple revenge tale, but one that arose naturally from an open world structure, strong fictional context, and a few expressive verbs. A genuinely emergent goal that the world motivated me to formulate on my own, instead of handing down to me directly from a quest designer.