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.”


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.”

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.