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Video game storytelling: The real problems and the real solutions

If any one element of gaming has dominated discussion of the medium over the last few years of this generation’s stubborn battle against the reaper, it’s narrative design and storytelling. With the rising prominence of indie developers through console and PC download services, as well as the increasing cinematic ambitions afforded to triple-A studios by steadily improving tech, this is arguably the console generation during which games segued across from being a mere plaything and staunchly set up shop in the realm of the bona fide medium.

If you’ve been reading GamesRadar for more than five minutes, you’ll know that narrative is the area of games most likely to make me stroke my beard to the point of starting a small chin-fire. So, with the imminent start of an indie-friendly next-gen heralding a potentially even greater increase in narrative-driven gaming, I feel like it’s time to take stock of where we’re really up to and where we’re going. What are the real problems in telling a video game story in 2013, what are the real solutions, and just how powerful a storytelling medium can games become?

Rising action

Over the last month, I’ve spoken to a variety of developers on the forefront of interactive storytelling, so rather than simply ramble on about what I think, I want to take insight and inspiration from the people pioneering this stuff for real. Because whether you personally play games for the story or not, narrative is one of the most important issues at play as gaming evolves into a mainstream entertainment medium. We’re past the point where games are a novelty, or have to exist solely as bit of escapist amusement. They absolutely can be those things, just as cinema once was and in some spheres still is. But, by having at their disposal the tools of all pre-existing media, as well as the unique factor of interactivity, games have the potential to be the most powerful storytelling tool of all. As Tali Goldstein, of Papo and Yo developer Minority, says:

“We think that we can achieve so much more with the power of interaction and simulation, because we have something in our hands that makes you feel like the world is… we have this ability to put you in other people’s shoes, and we are not using that. So if you see books, if you think about movies, if you think about pieces of art, they are always pushing people to feel something, or to express more elevated ideas. We are not using our best option ever--which is the video game--to do that. Why not?”

Why not indeed? There are multiple reasons that story is only now starting to be taken seriously as part of the game development process. First and most obvious, in the triple-A industry at least, is the financial pressure to avoid experimentation in favour of committing resources towards tried and trusted wins. Says Goldstein:

“Sometimes we find a recipe that really works. Big companies have this pressure on themselves to do these magical franchises that will bring in more money. You know the progression, right? The first one doesn’t make a lot, but the second one builds a franchise, and the third one, WOW! So sometimes it’s easier to just stick to the recipe and make money out of it.”

Particularly when, despite an increasing number of critical and commercial hits over recent years, narrative-driven gaming is still a relatively new player within the overall ecosystem.

“…emotional gaming, balancing intellectually challenging gameplay and storytelling, it’s not an easy thing to do. And there’s also this bravery that’s necessary. Sometimes you just need a little bit of courage to tell certain stories. There are so many things that are related to that. There’s this audience that are so used to having a kind type of product in their hands, and they don’t know really how to react to a new type of gaming. But there’s also this big audience that wants something different, that are craving it.

Casual problems

There is indeed. And as gaming expands its ambitions and its audience, story is going to be an increasingly important hook. As any long-term, ‘hardcore’ gamer will know, this generation has been typified, perhaps as a result of Nintendo’s early success with the Wii, by an obsession with snagging the nebulous ‘wider audience’ by way of the equally nebulous notion of ‘accessibility’. The results have been varied, but the method has frequently been the same. Take an existing, triple-A, ‘hardcore’ franchise, simplify the controls, and wait for the casual dollars to come flowing in.

I’ve never been convinced that mechanical difficulty was the right target. Surely relatability to the often idiosyncratic worlds and workings of video games is a bigger barrier to entry for the newcomer? Did Ubisoft’s heavily simplified 2008 Prince of Persia really pull in droves of non-gamers? Did a raft of casual players suddenly fall in love with Metal Gear Solid once the stealth and shooting became more forgiving in part four? I don’t think so. 

Yet narrative-focused games like The Walking Dead and Gone Home--games which operate very differently to the experiences usually found in a triple-A big hitter--have found great success among multiple demographics simply by telling universally comprehensible stories with care and craft. I put this point to Mike Bithell, developer of much-loved narrative platformer Thomas Was Alone and newly announced retelling of Robin Hood, Volume. 

19 comments

  • freeden - December 24, 2013 1:08 p.m.

    Good article. I think that gaming has come a long way with narrative and will continue to do so, but the stories don't change. Gaming, really, is about immersion into that story. Long ago, a game like Gabriel Knight immersed you in, what was basically, a novel by recreating New Orleans, filling it with characters, and letting you somewhat roam free, while keeping you on track through the novel by giving you specific goals to accomplish. It's the illusion that you were in control, while not having much control at all. Nothing about this has changed. Games still use the same practices to give players the illusion of controlling the story. The flaw I always find in a story is that, when a developer creates a poor story or creates poor characters, it's because of the sacrifice of these story elements. Stories are also inherently about characters separated from us. They aren't about ourselves, but about other people. You look at almost any heavy, story driven game and the player really never takes the persona of that character, they guide that character, but never become that character. The opposite obviously works, and I will use Skyrim as an example of that, but if you look at almost any successful , story driven game, it's not about the player themselves, it's about the characters. So, Skyrim. One of the reasons I couldn't get into Skyrim was this very issue. The game never felt very story heavy. Despite it's large mythology and massive world, it never really transcended to an experience I could relate to or feel emotional about or any other number of story elements that I feel are important. And I think this is reflective in the problems with narrative. Bringing up indie gaming is a good example because it shows us the power of storytelling. To The Moon became one of my favorite games of all time and I honestly don't think that it would have worked in any other way besides a game. How does Skyrim compare to To The Moon? Well, for all the awesomeness that Skyrim may have had, it never once allowed me to connect to it's characters or feel any kind of emotion, whereas To The Moon told a surprising story with excellent characters. I think the biggest take here is that, while Skyrim has many great points, if one can imagine that game with a powerful narrative of something like Metal Gear Solid, To The Moon, Silent Hill, or God Of War, then we can begin to see an incredibly powerful experience. I feel like the industry is heading in the right direction by combining gameplay and narrative, and I love that indie games are doing so well and having such an opportunity to display individual storytelling abilities. I would just love to see developers focus more on finding better ways to convey stories, or rather, putting more narrative heavy games on the market. It's great to have games that are all gameplay and fun to play, but nothing beats a good story, and a good story told well through gameplay and immersion, something like Deus Ex, is usually what makes for an incredible experience.
  • Jormungand - December 24, 2013 8:37 a.m.

    Dont know if there is really a problem with storytellign and narrative. At least NES and SNES games didn't need narrative or storytellign to be good games. The fact that we have te possibility to have games that actually tell us a story its actually great and it has moved ahead of graphics and in some extent, gameplay. Of course we cannot enjoy a story as the developer wants if the game is broken, but there is also a strong disposition to get on some cliches on most of the latest videogame releases. Bioshock Infinite for example, is an average FPS with some hooks to jump and some game breaking power ups. The ending was awesome but playing the game is worth it only if you finish it. If not you are stuck with a girl that has the power to get things from other dimension and yet she only founds ammo and crates. On the other side, the acclaimed ending for The Last of Us (and the whole story) i can relate it to the meme "what im suposed to feel?" Since I saw what happened in the beggining I anticipated most of the game storytelling about Joel and Ellie relationship. The ending was good just because it wasnt clichéd but again, just the ending. The whole game was like a deja vu of situations that I have already saw in movies or read in books. My point is that the storytelling and narrative have the problem of the fans and some media to overreact at thier best. Its not like its their fault if not because we rarely see this kind of games with more interest to telling us a story. Of course that if we live in a world with 100 mediocre games in every aspect, if one game comes out and has an "acceptable" ending or a ending out of the box will look like its the best game ever but, if we have 100 games like The Last of Us or BO Infinite what will happen? Mass Effect also tried to end the series with a bang and thats to some details, the fans raged because they wanted an "explained and cliched ending". We also have the problem of most of gamers playing without knowing what they want. They want good stories but the dont want games that focuses on telling us a story (like BEYOND) they want history and gameplay but they dont want exploration (like Telltale's TWD), they want exploration but they want action too. We have at least one game of each genre that is history driven, but overreactions, being positive or negative is hurting the quality of what developers can come up to. Of course I worte this like IMO thing. Great article. We have more problems than
  • Jormungand - December 24, 2013 8:39 a.m.

    Sorry for the typos, Im writing and playing Mario Party with a friend at the same time :P
  • klarfis - November 9, 2013 12:46 p.m.

    What seems to be lacking in video games as a whole is any sense of metaphor or allegory in the gameplay. Almost any artistic work has to be aware of the the symbolic cadences or patterns in its action. But many games treat the action in the most literal-minded way possible. Some games understand that control and gameplay design can act as a symbolic language, but most don't. Some games that "get it" in my opinion: the original Legend of Zelda, Street Fighter II, Bushido Blade, DOOM, Soul Calibur I and II, Super Monkey Ball, MechWarrior, Myst, Goldeneye. Most modern games miss this dimension entirely. There is nothing about the controls of GTA that conveys the meaning of the game. There is nothing in the controls of most modern FPSs that conveys the special flavor or significance of that game universe. Almost all modern games treat story, plot, character, and gameplay/controls as if they existed in different universes and in no way reflect each other. This is stupid. A game about being a gangster should have controls that make you feel like a gangster playing it: loose, cluttered, and aggressive. A game about ninjas should have quick, precise controls that require patience and good timing; a game about facing challenges with inner strength should have controls and gameplay design elements that reflect that ethos, relying on strong, simple rhythms and stable positioning. A game about being a soldier should have controls that reflect the fact that military equipment may not be intuitive or user-friendly, and that many military situations are mysterious and not survivable. I'm not nostalgic at all. I want new experiences. But the big businesses that have taken over gaming are illiterate in the basic language of video-gaming. They can't even string together a sentence in game form, let alone a full narrative.
  • MidianGTX - December 24, 2013 8:26 a.m.

    You say that, but look at how many people complained about Sackboy moving and controlling like a little bag of beans. There are a few games that have taken the same route, and they're almost always met with criticism from people who'd rather just have complete control than realistic control. Unless gamers can get their heads around the concept, it'll remain a risky tactic.
  • garnsr - November 8, 2013 9:02 p.m.

    I think part of what makes me feel like Dave is always writing against things is the lack of Cundy's "pointless" articles. I need more British balance. I think I would have liked Flower just as much without it trying to make there be some sort of antagonist. Mechanics without a story can be a good game, but that might be categorized as a tech demo rather than a game, to some people. I feel like we're working to make games with less gameplay and more story more acceptable, like Gone Home. I'd like to see both directions, sometimes I just want to play a game with no strings attached, sometimes I want to play a story without having to control too much. I don't like first person games very much, and I never feel like I'm immersed in a universe, in games or movies, I'm just watching, or running through a universe controlling a character who I know isn't me. I keep hearing people talk about emotion in games lately, but I'm not sure I feel connected enough to really feel emotions in games. I've played through all the Assassin's Creed and Yakuza games, in spite of both of them having stories and game mechanics that irritated me at times, all through both series, but giving me enough enjoyment of gameplay and story to keep going. Movies, only having story, can get to a point where you don't like the story, so you have no reason to keep going. Games can keep you going even through a weak story by the fact that it's a game you're playing, not just sitting by and letting happen.
  • udUbdaWgz - November 8, 2013 7:03 p.m.

    like i always say, gameplay is always more important than story and characters. the perfect example is the last of us. a game that is so mediocre gameplay-wise that it's good storytelling qualities become useless. do i want good storytelling? sure, but, never at the cost of great gameplay.
  • Manguy17 - November 8, 2013 8:30 p.m.

    Looking back this is a bit of a long post, so tl/dr: I dont think games should follow a limiting rule like "Gameplay>Everything" and would prefer that devs experiment with different ways to make a game, and what works best in order to evoke different emotions. Gotta disagree with this. Whilst I'm happy to play a game that prioritises gameplay (In almost all cases, I agree that this is the best way to go with development). The issue is that unlike a good story. Gameplay alone is generally limited in the range of emotions it can inspire. An adrenaline rush in a good action game, a sense of wonder when exploring an rpg or one of fear while being stalked by a shadowy killer in a horror game. (There are a few more than this, but I think that covers the main bases). A game that crafts a proper story on the other hand can evoke any emotion. Generally the most impact-full moments in great games are story driven rather than gameplay driven. (It's possible that I'm simply over familiar with the vast majority of gameplay mechanics used in modern games that I don't get much out of them, but that's another topic). If on occasion a game needs to sacrifice certain gameplay features in order to focus on the story then I'm happy for that to happen as chances are the culmination of that certain chain of events will be much more rewarding. Obviously I dont want this to be standard practice, and if devs can find a way to combine both gameplay and story whilst allowing both to reach their potential then that is the ideal scenario. But I would much rather devs take a risk on a story rather than follow a limiting mantra of "Gameplay>Everything". Of course there is always a place for any time of game, some which could be 100% gameplay and others that could be almost entirely story based (Dear Esther would be one such example) although said game would have to contain some degree of interactivity or else it wouldn't be a game (some would argue dear ester isn't a game anyway..)
  • udUbdaWgz - November 10, 2013 9:10 a.m.

    i get what you mean by saying it's limiting to just say, gameplay greater than everything. however, i embellish so as to drive the point home. this focus on story and characters is an issue that irritates me greatly and i feel has been a trend that is hurting the quality of video games and gaming. i'm sick of interactive storytelling and "cinematic experiences" being the primary focus and sometimes actually deemed more important than overall gameplay. they are not. yes, video games are an artform and medium that can be used to ignite emotional responses and increase the quality of a game. fine, but, don't ever sacrifice the gameplay.
  • Manguy17 - November 12, 2013 11:02 a.m.

    Horses for courses I suppose. Although Im not saying I want "cinematic experiences" I would just like to see a good story being told, and have that as a focal point of games more often. It doesn't necessarily need to mimic film in order to achieve that. If in some cases more traditional features of gameplay need to be stripped away for a developer to tell a story then that's fine. What I dont want however is for the kind of sacrifice where we end up with QTE's because there is a particularly complex scene and the dev cant find a way to make it work, but sticks with the scene for story purposes.
  • jinjuriki187 - November 8, 2013 9:21 p.m.

    i think your wrong, the gameplay for the last of us was amazing, its, in my opinion, the best game of all time, gameplay was great and the story was incredible. i would say gameplay and story are on an equal level. if I'm playing a game i was a good story, the gameplay might be good but who cares if I'm not gonna be interested or involved with it. heavy rain is a good example, the gameplay while not terrible, really wasn't that great either. but its still one of the greatest games ever mainly due to its amazing story. you say you want good storytelling but not at the cos of great gameplay, i don't disagree but i also don't want to sacrifice good storytelling for gameplay either. you are entitled to your own opinion but the last of us is a masterpiece
  • ThundaGawd - November 9, 2013 1:34 a.m.

    I disagree wholeheartedly, The Last Of Us had amazing gameplay, a game that actually had intelligent AI rather than the usual mindless retards who try to swarm you in droves in the hopes of overwhelming you despite the fact you mowed down the first 50 retards who tried the same fucking tactic. Not only that, but AI that actually reacted based on your actions as well (Point a gun at an enemy holding a melee weapon and he'll dive for cover, fire a weapon with an empty magazine and people will take the opportunity to push closer towards you while you reload, etc.). Seriously, why the fuck is everyone always cracking down on TLoU's gameplay? It's just as good if not better than the majority of third-person shooters out there, a lot of people seem to get their balls tangled over the fact you carried ladders around several times throughout the game, but it's not like it happened so often that it was unbearable (seriously, every ladder "puzzle" lasted 5 minutes MAX unless you were a dumbass). Ladders aside, there was a heavy emphasis on stealth/avoiding combat because supplies were actually scarce (you know, the way it SHOULD be in the wake of an apocalyptic outbreak?). Regardless of what people say, I find The Last Of Us was an exceptionally well-crafted game, maybe even (dare I say it?) a masterpiece. But to each his own, we'll see once the Platinum chalice awards roll around I guess.
  • sephex - November 10, 2013 5:12 a.m.

    Amen to that.
  • Shigeruken - November 8, 2013 5:47 p.m.

    Bookmarked for when I attempt indie development.
  • Britslop - November 8, 2013 2:25 p.m.

    Good article. I'm taking the fact that there's so much debate and chin stroking about story-telling in games at the moment as a positive sign. I've always been curious as to the role of the writer within the development process. Exactly how much influence do they have when it comes to the actual mechanics of a game? For example, is it a case of, 'Here's a really cool boss we came up with, now give him a back-story', or can the narrative actually shape the pace of how a level is designed? Up until recently, I always imagined video-game writers as Barton Fink-type characters, forced to work within dingy, damp hotels with the vaguest of outlines and a crushing deadline hanging over them...
  • shawksta - November 8, 2013 11:58 a.m.

    My brain hurts, Thanks Dave. Seriously though great article, I can appreciate games that go for a story side without much gameplay and vice versa as long as what they were set for was accomplished and that the weakest link is somewhat decent to have you continue. For example I don't mind that Ubisofts CSI ("games gameplay is iffy at times but I pull through and get used to it because the cases get me immersed in trying to through. It's annoying when you have people complain about the weak link on terms, like how one game doesn't have a 2deep4u story and how this other game doesn't have gameplay, it's more or less people who want to complain rather than enjoying it.
  • BladedFalcon - November 8, 2013 11:21 a.m.

    Wow Mr. Houghton, you've been on a roll lately, haven't you? :P Anyway, I'm happy this kind of article and discussions exist, because it's what help pushing the envelop forward. Peronally though, I've never really had a problem separating gameplay from story, so that whole hullabaloo of "ludonarrative dissonance" doesn't really bother me, as long as the gameplay is fun on it's own, and the story works even if you have to take it only as the story, without the gameplay. Maybe it's because I rarely tend to insert myself into the character I'm playing as *shrugs* That being said though, even if it doesn't bother me, I'm interested in seeing games which strive to integrate both gameplay and narrative in a way that co-exists better, mainly because I'm sure it will lead to new, more interesting experiences.
  • shawksta - November 8, 2013 12:02 p.m.

    While it is iffy, Sakurai tried going in that direction with Kid Icarus Uprising, thinking that having story and gameplay at the same time instead of having them interrupt each other would be for the better. It is a good idea, and it worked some times, but to have a game that can really coincide with the story without any diminishing to open new experiences is going to be one thing really worth waiting for.
  • CitizenWolfie - November 8, 2013 10:44 a.m.

    Awesome article. Really loved it. Personally I think the reason why game stories have a hard time standing up to films and books is because most games try to emulate films (especially blockbuster AAA titles) instead of using the aspects that are idiosynchratic to video games. Books have to feature descriptive narrative and devices such as metaphors, juxtaposition and the like as they are purely a written medium and the best books tend to be ones that work BECAUSE they're in the written word. Movies have to rely on things such as camera composition, FX, dialogue, scene transitions and editing being as they are a visual medium and likewise the "best" are the ones that use these aspects to their fullest. Even the best graphic novels work because they are more than just words and pictures - the panels themselves, the spacing between them and the way the images flow all come into play. It's why Watchmen, Maus and A Contract With God are so important. Games have so many things that are unique to games - player immersion, the notion of "levelling up," free exploration, ludo play, sound design (especially if using headphones) - but very few actually bother to incorporate them and use them as devices to tell the story. Last of Us does it well - it allows us to piece this world together through the map design, collectables etc and Walking Dead does it by offering dialogue choices and interaction. Hell, even CoD4 has its moments such as the nuke aftermath - because you're looking through the soldier's eyes it makes it much more effective. I think it's up to the devs to decide whether they want the protagonist to be an avatar for the player (Fallout, Skyrim etc - NOT Grand Theft Auto) or a fully fledged character in their own right. GTAV did it perfectly I think - the torture scene worked because it was Trevor doing it, not "you." Thanks to the great writing and choice of three characters I found myself for the first time playing GTA not as a violent, anarchic avatar for myself but actually playing AS Franklin by letting him buy all the motor businesses, racing as him. Playing AS Michael, exploring the sights and sounds of Vinewood and enjoying a game of golf or tennis. Playing AS Trevor - being a creepy, uber-violent, unpredictable and sadistic bastard.

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