Video game storytelling: The real problems and the real solutions

Of course, we’re teetering very close to the area of ludonarrative dissonance now, the oft-cited criticism for many a video game story, whereby the facts of the game world don’t match the facts of the player experience. Short-hand: The paupers of Bioshock Infinite complaining about a lack of food as you loot their bins for delicious sandwiches. It’s a fashionable phrase to throw around in video game criticism at the moment, but how important a problem is it, really? Does it have to be ironed out, moving forward, or can a player not beard-strokingly obsessed with this stuff enjoy a game story without noticing it?

Says Bithell:

“I think it’s a very easy thing to hit games over the head with, and you sound smart because you’re using a Latin word. But I think that if people don’t know it’s bothering them, it might be bothering them without them knowing.

“I think there’s a certain element to it where your average action movie fan prefers Die Hard to a generic action movie. And even though the action is of the same quality and the acting is of the same quality, they might not be aware that Die Hard is one of the best pieces of storytelling. It’s brilliant. It’s so perfectly constructed. They might not be aware of that, and yet it’s totally happening. So I think not having the language to describe, or even the interest in knowing, you might still have that feeling.”

Adrian largely agrees.

“I would agree that it is very important, but I am not sure if it’s really the biggest problem. For example, we can easily get immersed in the worlds of many shooters, and yet we’re not quite bothered by the regenerating health. And in theory, that’s LND, right? In the story I am a human being, but in gameplay I am a machine. What I am trying to say is: there can be a very thin line between LND and game metaphors, aka gamisms: things that game designers use to translate real life experiences into the language of games.

“But yeah, most of the time LND is hurting the experience, for most people on the subconscious level. They might not be able to identify the problem, but “something’s off”. Using a reverse example: it’s like 90% of Call of Duty players are not able to say why exactly firing a weapon feels so right, because they don’t know that the game’s 60 fps helps reduce the input lag. They just feel it, ‘for some reason’”

Infinite problems, many solutions

Of course, this stuff does come down to how an individual player wants to relate to their character. Chmielarz admits that his recent research has shown that some simply wish to be along for the ride, operating as a kind-of omniscient wing-man for their in-game buddy. But as he also points out, if you work to make things right for the player who wants to be their character, both camps end up are happy.

And of course, this is ‘just’ if we’re talking about creating a cohesive narrative environment within a ‘normal’ game. As games have matured, they’ve rapidly started to develop their own storytelling language, just as film leapt forward with the invention of unique techniques such as editing and sound design. Like many, Tali Goldstein believes that using expressive, sometimes metaphorical gameplay mechanics as a storytelling device, as part of a more directorally crafted experience, is going to be a big part of the gaming’s future.

“I don’t have anything against cutscenes, because there are times you need context. It’s not a problem. We actually use a little bit of that. But we cannot bring you in and out of the story just to explain something, and make you role-play. Sometimes it’s not about deriving meaning and how you should feel in a 10-second cinematic. It’s actually about empowering you through mechanics to feel like that.

“The content and the core should be one thing. And it’s the same thing for movies, when have aesthetics that go very well with the narrative and you see that it’s a concise piece of work. And video games right now, for me, are not so concise or consistent as they should be. Does it match? Does one thing serve the other? It’s about service.”

Of course, in no way is any of this simple just because you know which issues need to be tackled. But all three developers are in agreement as to their philosophy on how to tackle them. Simply, there can be no more hierarchy between game design and story. We must say goodbye to the days when one could inform the other, or, as Tali puts it, “You spend your 50 million dollars building the mechanics of driving, of shooting and covering, and then, when you finally remember that you have a story to tell, you just put cinematics in, because you have no money left to create meaningful mechanics.”

Rather, both elements must be created as part of one unified process. Goldstein explains further, “They hug each other. I tend to say that aesthetics, story and mechanics need to come together. If they don’t, we are not doing our job correctly. For us, it’s very important to have a subject that we relate to… After that we need to find how we want to tell the story, and then there’s the mechanics and the aesthetics. Because one thing doesn’t go without the other.”

Adrian concurs:

“If we’re talking about games that want to offer a broad spectrum of emotions, then my answer is that the gameplay and the story should be indistinguishable one from another. Tell me a story through gameplay, or let the gameplay tell a story. However you want to look at it.”

As for Mr. Bithell:

“You have to develop both at the same time, otherwise one will always win. You can’t add a mechanic to a game without understanding what that means to the character and how it changes the storytelling.”

So, we’re finally getting this whole “What are games and what should they do?” thing wrapped up then? No, actually. As Mike continues,

“I’ll believe it once I see people stop debating what films are or what books are. At a point when people say ‘Right, theatre is sorted, we know what theatre is’. They’ve been doing that since the Greeks. It’ll never get solved, it’ll never get worked out, but a lot of people will have a lot of fun and a lot of amazing stuff will get created through the pursuit of trying to answer that question”

Ball’s in your court, next-gen. Let’s have some amazing.

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.