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5 Core Elements of Interactive Storytelling

By Thomas Grip | Published May 09 2014 08:50 AM in Game Design
Peer Reviewed by (Servant of the Lord, jbadams, Aldacron)

writing interactive storytelling narrative

Over the past few years I have had a growing feeling that videogame storytelling is not what it could be. And the core issue is not in the writing, themes, characters or anything like that; instead, the main problem is with the overall delivery. There is always something that hinders me from truly feeling like I am playing a story. After pondering this on and off for quite some time I have come up with a list of five elements that I think are crucial to get the best kind of interactive narrative.

The following is my personal view on the subject, and is much more of a manifesto than an attempt at a rigorous scientific theory. That said, I do not think these are just some flimsy rules or the summary of a niche aesthetic. I truly believe that this is the best foundational framework to progress videogame storytelling and a summary of what most people would like out of an interactive narrative.

Also, it's important to note that all of the elements below are needed. Drop one and the narrative experience will suffer.

With that out of the way, here goes:

1) Focus on Storytelling


This is a really simple point: the game must be, from the ground up, designed to tell a story. It must not be a game about puzzles, stacking gems or shooting moving targets. The game can contain all of these features, but they cannot be the core focus of the experience. The reason for the game to exist must be the wish to immerse the player inside a narrative; no other feature must take precedence over this.

The reason for this is pretty self-evident. A game that intends to deliver the best possible storytelling must of course focus on this. Several of the problems outlined below directly stem from this element not being taken seriously enough.

A key aspect to this element is that the story must be somewhat tangible. It must contain characters and settings that can be identified with and there must be some sort of drama. The game's narrative cannot be extremely abstract, too simplistic or lack any interesting, story-related, happenings.

2) Most of the time is spent playing


Videogames are an interactive medium and therefore the bulk of the experience must involve some form of interaction. The core of the game should not be about reading or watching cutscenes, it should be about playing. This does not mean that there needs to be continual interaction; there is still room for downtime and it might even be crucial to not be playing constantly.

The above sounds pretty basic, almost a fundamental part of game design, but it is not that obvious. A common "wisdom" in game design is that choice is king, which Sid Meier's quote "a game is a series of interesting choices" neatly encapsulates. However, I do not think this holds true at all for interactive storytelling. If choices were all that mattered, choose your own adventure books should be the ultimate interaction fiction - they are not. Most celebrated and narrative-focused videogames do not even have any story-related choices at all (The Last of Us is a recent example). Given this, is interaction really that important?

It sure is, but not for making choices. My view is that the main point of interaction in storytelling is to create a sense of presence, the feeling of being inside the game's world. In order to achieve this, there needs to be a steady flow of active play. If the player remains inactive for longer periods, they will distance themselves from the experience. This is especially true during sections when players feel they ought to be in control. The game must always strive to maintain and strengthen the experience of "being there".

3) Interactions must make narrative sense


In order to claim that the player is immersed in a narrative, their actions must be somehow connected to the important happenings. The gameplay must not be of irrelevant, or even marginal, value to the story. There are two major reasons for this.

First, players must feel as though they are an active part of the story and not just an observer. If none of the important story moments include agency from the player, they become passive participants. If the gameplay is all about matching gems then it does not matter if players spend 99% of their time interacting; they are not part of any important happenings and their actions are thus irrelevant. Gameplay must be foundational to the narrative, not just a side activity while waiting for the next cutscene.

Second, players must be able to understand their role from their actions. If the player is supposed to be a detective, then this must be evident from the gameplay. A game that requires cutscenes or similar to explain the player's part has failed to tell its story properly.

4) No repetitive actions


The core engagement from many games come from mastering a system. The longer time players spend with the game, the better they become at it. In order for this process to work, the player's actions must be repeated over and over. But repetition is not something we want in a well-formed story. Instead, we want activities to only last as long as the pacing requires. The players are not playing to become good at some mechanics, they are playing to be part of an engrossing story. When an activity has played out its role, a game that wants to do proper storytelling must move on.

Another problem with repetition is that it breaks down the player's imagination. Other media rely on the audience's mind to fill out the blanks for a lot of the story's occurrences. Movies and novels are vague enough to support these kinds of personal interpretations. But if the same actions are repeated over and over, the room for imagination becomes a lot slimmer. Players lose much of the ability to fill gaps and instead get a mechanical view of the narrative.

This does not mean that the core mechanics must constantly change, it just means that there must be variation on how they are used. Both Limbo and Braid are great examples of this. The basic gameplay can be learned in a minute, but the games still provide constant variation throughout the experience.

5) No major progression blocks


In order to keep players inside a narrative, their focus must constantly be on the story happenings. This does not rule out challenges, but it needs to be made sure that an obstacle never consumes all focus. It must be remembered that the players are playing in order to experience a story. If they get stuck at some point, focus fades away from the story, and is instead put on simply progressing. In turn, this leads to the unraveling of the game's underlying mechanics and for players to try and optimize systems. Both of these are problems that can seriously degrade the narrative experience.

There are three common culprits for this: complex or obscure puzzles, mastery-demanding sections and maze-like environments. All of these are common in games and make it really easy for players to get stuck. Either by not being sure what to do next, or by not having the skills required to continue. Puzzles, mazes and skill-based challenges are not banned, but it is imperative to make sure that they do not hamper the experience. If some section is pulling players away from the story, it needs to go.

Games that do this


These five elements all sound pretty obvious. When writing the above I often felt I was pointing out things that were already widespread knowledge. But despite this, very few games incorporate all of the above. This is quite astonishing when you think about it. The elements by themselves are quite common, but the combination of all is incredibly rare.

The best case for games of pure storytelling seems to be visual novels. But these all fail at element 2; they simply are not very interactive in nature and the player is mostly just a reader. They often also fail at element 3 as they do not give the player much actions related to the story (most are simply played out in a passive manner).

Action games like Last of Us and Bioshock infinite all fail on elements 4 and 5 (repetition and progression blocks). For larger portions of the game they often do not meet the requirements of element 3 (story related actions) either. It is also frequently the case that much of the story content is delivered in long cutscenes, which means that some do not even manage to fulfill element 2 (that most of the game is played). RPGs do not fare much better as they often contain very repetitive elements. They often also have way too much downtime because of lengthy cutscenes and dialogue.

Games like Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead come close to feeling like an interactive narrative, but fall flat at element 2. These games are basically just films with interactions slapped on to them. While interaction plays an integral part in the experience it cannot be said to be a driving force. Also, apart from a few instances the gameplay is all about reacting, it does not have have the sort of deliberate planning that other games do. This removes a lot of the engagement that otherwise comes naturally from videogames.

So what games do fulfill all of these elements? As the requirements of each element are not super specific, fulfillment depends on how one chooses to evaluate. The one that I find that comes closest is Thirty Flights of Loving, but it is slightly problematic because the narrative is so strange and fragmentary. Still, it is by far the game that comes closest to incorporating all elements. Another close one is To The Moon, but it relies way too much on dialog and cutscenes to meet the requirements. Gone Home is also pretty close to fulfilling the elements. However, your actions have little relevance to the core narrative and much of the game is spent reading rather than playing.

Whether one chooses to see these games as fulfilling the requirements or not, I think they show the path forward. If we want to improve interactive storytelling, these are the sort of places to draw inspiration from. Also, I think it is quite telling that all of these games have gotten both critical and (as far as I know) commercial success. There is clearly a demand and appreciation for these sort of experiences.

Final Thoughts


It should be obvious, but I might as well say it: these elements say nothing of the quality of a game. One that meets none of the requirements can still be excellent, but it cannot claim to have fully playable, interactive storytelling as its main concern. Likewise, a game that fulfills all can still be crap. These elements just outline the foundation of a certain kind of experience. An experience that I think is almost non-existent in videogames today.

I hope that these five simple rules will be helpful for people to evaluate and structure their projects. The sort of videogames that can come out of this thinking is an open question as there is very little done so far. But the games that are close to having all these elements hint at a very wide range of experiences indeed. I have no doubts that this path will be very fruitful to explore.

Notes

  • Another important aspects of interaction that I left out is the ability to plan. I mention it a bit when discussing Walking Dead and Heavy Rain, but it is a worth digging into a little bit deeper. What we want from good gameplay interaction is not just that the player presses a lot of buttons. We want these actions to have some meaning for the future state of the game. When making an input players should be simulating in their minds how they see it turning out. Even if it just happens on a very short time span (eg "need to turn now to get a shot at the incoming asteroid") it makes all the difference as now the player has adapted the input in way that never happens in a purely reactionary game.
  • The question of what is deemed repetitive is quite interesting to discuss. For instance, a game like Dear Esther only has the player walking or looking, which does not offer much variety. But since the scenery is constantly changing, few would call the game repetitive. Some games can also offer really complex and varied range of actions, but if the player is tasked to perform these constantly in similar situations, they quickly get repetitive. I think is fair to say that repetition is mostly an asset problem. Making a non-repetitive game using limited asset counts is probably not possible. This also means that a proper storytelling game is bound to be asset heavy.
  • Here are some other games that I feel are close to fulfilling all elements: The Path, Journey, Everyday the Same Dream, Dinner Date, Imortall and Kentucky Route Zero. Whether they succeed or not is a bit up to interpretation, as all are a bit borderline. Still all of these are well worth one's attention. This also concludes the list of all games I can think of that have, or at least are close to having, all five of these elements.

Links


http://frictionalgames.blogspot.se/2012/08/the-self-presence-and-storytelling.html
Here is some more information on how repetition and challenge destroy the imaginative parts of games and make them seem more mechanical.

http://blog.ihobo.com/2013/08/the-interactivity-of-non-interactive-media.html
This is a nice overview on how many storytelling games give the player no meaningful choices at all.

http://frictionalgames.blogspot.se/2013/07/thoughts-on-last-of-us.html
The Last of Us is the big storytelling game of 2013. Here is a collection of thoughts on what can be learned from it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visual_novel
Visual Novels are not to be confused with Interactive Fiction, which is another name for text adventure games.

Thirty Flights of Loving
This game is played from start to finish and has a very interesting usages of scenes and cuts.

To The Moon
This is basically an rpg but with all of the fighting taken out. It is interesting how much emotion that can be gotten from simple pixel graphics.

Gone Home
This game is actually a bit similar to To The Moon in that it takes an established genre and cuts away anything not to do with telling a story. A narrative emerge by simply exploring an environment.


This article was originally published on the Frictional Games blog and is republished with kind permission from the original author Thomas Grip.



About the Author(s)


Thomas Grip is the creative director at indie developer Frictional Games, creators of the popular Penumbra and Amnesia games.

License


GDOL (Gamedev.net Open License)




Comments

Dear Esther is almost 'repetitive' in how slow the game goes. It could've used slightly more compacting of the environment to better deliver the story. But Dear Esther is lacking interaction with the story - even though I wasn't watching cutscenes, I still felt like an observer.

 

[edit:] Compared to, for example, the original Stanley Parable mod, where I felt like a participant - since the dialog was directed to me and based off of my actions (Portal 2 also did this well).

Dear Esther only just played unrelated dialog based on what area I entered, and was talking more about the area than about me, and definitely wasn't talking to me. It wasn't triggered in response to an in-game action I took. It felt like those pre-recorded voice-description boxes some zoos have, where you click the button and it talks about the animals in the cage. Dear Esther dialog was area-related but not action-related. It had little or nothing to do with my actions, so I was not a participant.

 

Thirty Flights did well with interaction forwarding (and communicating) the story but, as you mentioned, because of its jumpy nature cutting between different (interactive) scenes, it felt disjointed and disconnected. It's kinda like a director making a movie like Memento and telling the story backwards, before mastering telling the story forward. It's definitely a step forward in story interaction though!

Really inspiring article Thomas. I specifically have encountered exceedingly few games where I felt that the game itself was designed towards the development of an interactive story as opposed to gameplay. Like you said, Journey comes to mind (the only one I'm really familiar with out of those you mentioned).

 

However, I'd like to ask for some kind of concrete examples you can think of (even if only hypothetical) in which a game could go without some gameplay elements and still be a spectacular interactive story. If we are to make a game that focuses on storyline, how should it be differentiated from a gameplay oriented video game? It has to have gameplay elements of some sort to be interactive, so how best to integrate these? I see you've mentioned The Last of Us which I think did this at times (notes, in-game dialogue, etc.), but how would you extrapolate a set of guidelines for effective gameplay techniques that accomplish the goals you are searching for? This will help to focus our attention on the key things we want, both conceptually and in design mechanics.

Any particular reason why you didn't link to your articles about 4-Layers at the Frictional Games Blog and Gamasutra?

I find them very good reads and think it complements this article nicely.

http://frictionalgames.blogspot.se/2014/04/4-layers-narrative-design-approach.html

(http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/ThomasGrip/20140429/216467/4Layers_A_Narrative_Design_Approach.php)

I seem to disagree a lot with this article, it's not as easy as you say to solve this problem of delivering narrative in games as you say. I'm not even sure if there's a solution to it, games in fact may just not be a good storytelling medium. Gameplay mechanics are indeed good at helping portray a certain experience (i.e. being a cop), however, they do NOT aid in portraying a STORY.

 

Think of games versus movies as 'doing' versus 'observing,' a story is just generally better conveyed when a person is observing the happening rather than actually doing it. If you were one of the characters in the movie, the experience would be completely different: it's impossible to create the type of suspense where the audience knows more than the characters, or it's impossible to create a scenario where the characters know more than the audience. In addition, being in the actual film means you'll react in completely differently to observers so that's just another factor to consider to make things even more complicated than they already are.  

 

This is why most games serve as 'simulations' rather than a medium to portray narrative.

It almost feels like that in order to portray a proper narrative in games, they need to be less like a game and more like a movie. I guess with the right amount of 'observing' vs. 'doing' then a proper narrative can be conveyed where the gameplay aids the experience of being in the role of the main character/s whilst the story unfolds through observation. And this doesn't mean cut scenes, because story can unfold during gameplay as well (but it must be through observation). Overall my point is that observation is necessary for a story to unfold and that gameplay only serves to aid in portraying a certain experience.

I think Bastion really embodies most of this, you are almost always playing, that playing never get's repetitive (you may have an optimal loadout but upgrades and new enemies always keep it fresh), and you are very core to the plot of the game. That's definitely one of my top 5 games.

Thanks for linking the 4-Layer Narrative Design article Carsten (and thank you Thomas for writing it). That was more what I was looking for in terms of "examples". It really helped make the concept more clear.

@ Gaming Point: if you read Thomas' document TheSelfPresenceStorytelling,pdf, he specifically talks about how his goal is to get people "playing" a story rather than just "observing" it. Having players interact with the setting, characters, etc. to bring them into the fiction of the world in a more immersive manner. There would of course be an "observing" sense to any instance of watching other characters have dialogue or having cutscenes explicitly, but it's engaging the player's thought process about what is going on in the game world and letting them decipher how it is they intend to progress that adds to their involvement in the existing story.

I'm not sure what to think of this article. I agree with some parts, but  disagree with the overall idea.

 

My main problem with it is: 

It must be remembered that the players are playing in order to experience a story

 

The article revolves around that opinion made fact. Of course, I know you mention that it's a personal view, and I get that. I just have to say that I can't agree with that sentiment. Plenty of games focus so much on narrative that they end up hurting themselves. Bioshock Infinite is, in my opinion, a terrible game precisely because the developers were obsessed with making the player care about the story and characters, resulting in mediocre gameplay. There are exceptions, I guess, but the only one I can think of is Planescape: Torment.

 

Why would I play a game for a story, when most are just terrible? I find that a good story is just icing on the cake. If the game has superb gameplay, I'll love it. If it also has a good story and characters, that just makes it even more fantastic. But a game with a good story and horrible gameplay? To begin with, most games that try to focus on a story seem to be really, really bad in that aspect. A game with extremely good gameplay will have me coming back to it, one with a decent story and no gameplay will be played through once (if at all) and forever forgotten.

 

I do agree with some parts, curiously enough. Mainly:
 

2) Most of the time is spent playing

Videogames are an interactive medium and therefore the bulk of the experience must involve some form of interaction. The core of the game should not be about reading or watching cutscenes, it should be about playing.

 

 

I'm cool with stories in games, I like them when they are done decently enough. But to obsess over it is just wrong to me. Videogames are not books, they are not movies. They should be treated as such, use their strengths to convey something, instead of shoehorning a narrative into it and ruin a potentially good game.

 

There should obviously be more examples, but a point in case I think, is Demon's/Dark Souls. What do you think about them? The developers themselves said that they did gameplay first, and then added a story. They focused on making a fun game, a rewarding game, something to enjoy and play through again and again. And only then did they add a story. And surprisingly enough, it worked wonders. The player played through it, and IF he cared about the story, he could look for it. Dig it up and build it, resulting in an incredibly rich lore and story that is still discussed amongst fans. They love it. Both the lore and the story that actually makes sense with the player's actions. The way that a player goes through the game is directly connected to the story. The way you level up, the hunger for souls, the way some enemies behave, their locations, the ending of the game, everything makes sense. Even if the player gives up and drops the game makes sense within the context of the story.

 

I'll stop there as it's just an example, but you get my point. Those games wanted to be a game first, a story second, and it really worked out for the best. I think that more developers should learn from that, and be subtle, be smart, and convey what you want in a non intrusive way, meant for those that actually care about what you want to say or the feeling you want to express. Understand the strengths of your medium and understand that it's simply not the same as a book, a visual novel, or a movie.

@ArsDiaboli && @GamingPoint:

I have a feeling that we're mixing different kinds of games here. I personally agree that gameplay has to come first and foremost, as that is what makes games "fun" for me.

Then again, as a Designer and I really appreciate any input on the topic from designers who are emphasizing conveying a story. I find there's much to learn for the process that ArsDiaboli describes. Tricks of the trade, so to speak.

 

Yes, with interactive games we have to work on telling a story with many more channels then Films, Audio or Books. Think about the differences in storytelling between Books and Film. And the many different kinds of games that can be made.

I find it a quantum leap and the more techniques we're exploring as a community, the more tested and discussed methods one can choose from when designing a specific kind of game.

 

Cheers /Carsten

@Carsten Germer

 

There is no rule that states that gameplay must come first. For some reason people keep bringing that up and I understand why - games have this interactivity element which other mediums don't have so game designers want to emphasize it. However, gameplay tends to do more harm to the story than good, for many reasons. One example I can think of the top of my head is that gameplay serves as 'filler' material which causes the audience to lose attention or focus. Everything you see in a movie is done so the audience's attention is drawn in, for example, if a character is to walk from school to a train station with very little else happening, a movie won't show that scene. It will cut straight to the character being at the train station. Most games tend to make the player walk to the train station, and this is the kind of interactivity that ruins storytelling.

 

There is NOTHING wrong with minimal gameplay. Walking Dead is a good example where we are drawn into the game with no gameplay except for a few dialogue choices here and there. Yes, they have some point and click adventure style gameplay, but for the most part they do it correctly - in scenes where they want the player to feel the mood of being in the character's shoes. For example: clementine sneaking through the house at night.

 

This is not to say that gameplay is bad. There's nothing wrong with gameplay, but if it doesn't add to the story, then omit it or find a better way. The key is to use all the elements at your disposal and to use gameplay correctly to tell a story. If a certain experience is better conveyed through cutscenes, then go ahead and use cutscenes. The only problem with cutscenes is that transitioning from gameplay to observing might cause disruptions to the story, but I won't discuss that here because it will take many pages.

A good read. I wonder what he (and others) would think of a point-and-click RPG like Syberia?

 

Definitely gated, but the story and character development is everything. Without the 'gates' you would just be reading an interactive novel (with not much in the interactive department...).

 

Still IMO a great game, though.

 

My own project, which I consider very "story-driven" uses 'gates' of various kinds at times, but they're meant to be a bit frustrating: You're trying to find somebody to save the world and everyone wants you to jump through these damn hoops. Doesn't anybody care?  I'm finding it a tough balancing act with character frustration vs. player frustration.


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