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Video game storytelling: The real problems and the real solutions

“First of all, people don’t dislike first-person shooters because they’re hard. They dislike first-person shooters because they don’t want to shoot people. I was massively amazed, with Thomas Was Alone especially, how broad the audience went, and I think that that was mainly because of the storytelling. I mean everyone likes a good story. So the themes that a lot of these indie games are dealing with are a lot more approachable if you’re not a genre fan. Volume is very much a sci-fi, sci-tech thing, so it’s much more closed, but Gone Home is actually a story about sisters and family relationships and nostalgia, and a bunch of different things. You don’t need to be an Aliens fan to like it.

“Playing a game on a controller is a very complex interaction, but everyone is designed to perceive emotions and perceive stories and to give a shit about characters.”

The mechanics of a narrative

And that right there is why story is important. To get shamelessly bio-psychological for a moment, narrative is simply how human beings perceive and interpret the world around them as an ongoing, relatable place. Without the ability to imprint events with a storyline, the world would just be a bunch of stuff happening all over the place. Simply, whether Neanderthal caveperson or modern, Facebook worshipping technophile, story and storytelling link the world experiences of pretty much every human there’s ever been. As Mike continues,

“You know, we live in a media-rich world where, even removing the biological pre-disposition to storytelling which seems to exist, just the fact that there’s no-one on the planet who would be able to buy Gone Home who hasn’t seen a movie or a soap opera [means that every one of them] has an understanding of how storytelling works.”

So why are video games still having trouble? Surely if this stuff is as universal as breathing air and pooping, it should be second nature? Well no. Because beyond the issues of budgeting for time and money, gaming’s greatest advantage as a narrative medium is also its greatest hurdle for storytellers. Simply, the mechanics of interactive narrative are a minefield.

Adrian Chmielarz is the co-founder and chief game designer of The Astronauts, the Polish indie studio built by the founding members of Bulletstorm and Gears of War: Judgment developer People Can Fly. With its non-violent, exploration-driven horror detective story The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, the studio is putting the evolution of smart storytelling at the forefront of its plans. But Adrian is all too aware of the medium’s demands and pitfalls.

“We’ve nailed the engagement part of games--Who hasn’t played Tetris for too long?--but once people felt it was better to put some context to all these mechanics, the Pandora’s box was opened. The more story-telling we inserted into games, the more it clashed with the gameplay part. The more believable the worlds and their characters, the less we could tolerate the gaminess of it. Suddenly it felt weird that the hero we believe in operates in a world that features health packs around every corner. And this is where we are right now, trying to figure out how to preserve what makes games games--interaction, engagement, agency--and through these mechanisms tell stories we believe in and create worlds we can escape to.

“We have player/character empathy, ludonarrative consistency, player agency, sense of presence, immersion, engagement – and they all interact with each other and influence each other. And the Holy Grail is for all of them to sing in harmony. For example, if I fully empathize with the protagonist and this is, indeed, my alter ago in a game, but there’s just nothing interesting do, all that empathy means nothing. And vice versa, if there’s tons of interesting activities, but they are all about slaughtering innocents, this may create a dissonance that makes me uncomfortable and thus unable to enjoy the game.

“It’s all important, there should be no compromises here. Don’t serve a great food on a dirty plate.”

Consistency

That consistency of experience and character connection is key for me, personally. All too often I’ve found myself pulled out of a game’s world once the various bricks of its reality fail to line-up. Maybe my character suddenly does something I myself would not do in the situation presented. Maybe a third-person cutscene smashes my sense of insertion into a first-person world. Maybe the rules of the gameplay contradict what I’m told about the rules of the world I’m living in. It’s all damn hard to reconcile.

Says Adrian, as we discuss the problem many players had with Grand Theft Auto V’s forced interactive torture scene:

“When the control over the protagonist is taken away from the player, his actions need to be neutral or positive to the player’s own desires. So the players who find torturing innocents amusing will actually not see a problem here, but I think we can all agree that most of us don’t necessarily enjoy the idea. Also, the players who actually do not treat the character as their alter ego might not see a problem here as well, but, again, that’s not why a lot of us people play video games”

Mike Bithell has similar feelings.

“If you’ve got a character who’s a pacifist, don’t give them a gun. Or if you do give them a gun, talk about that relationship. But if you’re going to make them feel bad about killing people, don’t make them enjoy killing people and don’t make the act of killing people enjoyable to the player. Basically it’s about avoiding contradictions. A lot of storytelling is about avoiding that break.

“The character should behave the way that they would logically behave. They can still surprise you, but they need to surprise you within the context of what their character is. Really the difference is that in a game, the player is performing, and you need to take that into consideration. It means that they’re probably more invested in the story, and they’re probably more likely to notice contradictions.” 

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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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