I have been fascinated by stories in games ever since I fell more and more into the universe of gaming. When I started making games I was convinced stories were the most important thing in games. I read books on game design which stated that games couldn't tell decent stories and probably never will. They told me the important thing about games was the mechanics, story was just a lick of paint. That was several years ago and ever since reading this I have been determined to make stories a part of games that people didn't think of as a lick of paint.
As I learnt more about games I decided that some serious thought was needed to decide how stories in games should be treated. Thankfully 2013 has provided some amazing games that have finally given me confidence that storytelling has a place in games. But not like any other medium. This was the revelation I needed.
If we take a step back for a minute and look at storytelling in other mediums we notice something. It's different in every medium. Books, for example tell stories by describing situations and characters in a unique way that engages a person's imagination and lets them follow the story in a deep and meaningful way. Movies and television use completely different methods to tell stories, they rely on visuals to tell a story, however, books and television both have something in common. They are both forms of passive storytelling.
Passive storytelling is when the reader or viewer sits along and watches the story as told by someone else. They do not have any involvement in it. This allows the writers to craft a dramatic arc with twists and cliffhangers that get the viewer or reader on the edge of their seat as they follow the story.
This is were games come in. Games have always fascinated me far more than any other medium of entertainment and art because of how many levels of interaction they have. They are interactive and visual, which create a whole new level of psychology that the player experiences. This however, in my observations, ruins the normal methods of storytelling. Dramatic arcs for example are not as effective because the player has direct effect over the outcome of the game. The player could walk forward and trigger a cutscene with a plot twist, or they could walk around in circles, breaking the pacing of the story. This makes it much harder to tell a story.
The player is now not a witness, he is not being guided through a story. He is now a part of it. It's not a case of watching a character. The player is the character, the character is an extension of the player in the same way a car is. The character therefore inherits all the personality traits of the player. This can create situations that detriment a linear story, for example if the character is presented as shy and fearful, but the player can then take control and run over people in the street with a car. Admittedly this is an exaggerated example since many game developers carefully craft their characters and mechanics so its hard to do something that doesn't make sense. But you are now taking away freedom from the player. A difficult problem to fix.
I have been quite negative so far so lets see how we can fix this problem. Let's start by looking at the strengths of games. Games are systems. Systems of mechanics, very often with a reward or achievement system. These achievements and rewards are often psychological more than literal. For example making a player feel powerful after using a massive weapon, or passing a difficult level. This must be the basis for telling a story, rather than using methods borrowed from other mediums. The problem still exists though, how can we get the player to behave in a way that makes sense to a story? It is clear games require whole new ways to tell stories than have ever existed before.
The way I think this should be done, and the way a lot of modern games are going now, is context. That is, putting the player in a context that makes sense. A story is not a context, the world is the context. The universe the player is involved in. I have noticed that when a player is given a world that makes sense, they will likely fall deeper and deeper into it. They will take on behaviours that their subconscious thinks they should in the context. This is similar to social convention in the real world. We just need to use it in fictional worlds. The player however must need to feel like they want to be in this world. The Assassins Creed games are wonderful examples of this. The player is absorbed into a world that they feel makes sense, they feel like they want to be a part of this world. In AC4 the player is lost in a pirate world and so starts to do things pirates would, which make sense in the story.
Obviously this has a problem, it doesn’t always work. Everyone plays games differently, which means their experience of the game is going to be different, but this is okay. We need to accept that games are not linear. Everyone's experience will be different, but that is because, unlike books or television, the player is actually a part of the story. This is something we need to celebrate about this medium and cherish for its uniqueness.
Doing this in games is not easy, I will not sugar coat that. You need to make the player feel like the character, and then give them a choice of actions that make sense, however the player must not feel restricted. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is an example where I don't think this has been done as well as it could be. For example players are given a race, which gives them a backstory and personality. It is fully the players responsibility to act like an elf for example, but when the player does something that an elf wouldn't do, it doesn’t quite feel right. In this sense, a huge amount of games are essentially role-playing games, as in the player has to want to role-play the character.
The player's imagination is another important part of this process. They need to become the character in their own head. Imagination can also be used to help the player experience a story rather than watch it. If you look at your own life as a story that you experienced you will see that nobody told you how your life is going, you figured it out yourself based on what was happening around you. Games need to tell stories in the same way. Put the player in a situation were he can use his imagination to connect the dots and realize what's going on. The player will relish the moment he figured it out far more than when he was told what was going on. It's a case of show, don't tell.
Now I want to tackle the problem with cutscenes and cinematics. They are a borrowed form of storytelling from another medium - this isn't good. We need to figure out how to tell stories without cutscenes. We are getting much better at this though, which makes me exceedingly happy. A great example is Call of Duty. The Call of Duty games have very little cutscenes, other than the animated sequences shown during level loading. These sequences never have animated characters, rather visuals and voices. They are also short and snappy. The rest of the story is told with dialogue while the player plays the game, and the occasional moment of a super quick cinematic that blends seamlessly into gameplay. This, in my opinion, is a very good way of dealing with linear stories. While on the subject I'd like to mention how the gameplay of Call of Duty matches the personality of the character, so it never feels out of place in the story.
I was thinking the other day about games and what I remember from games. After a chat with a friend I noticed something. I remember what I call “player engineered moments” far more than I do scripted moments of stories. What I mean by player engineered moments is memorable moments where whatever happens is as a result of my own actions. Examples of games that do this very well are Grand Theft Auto 5 and Just Cause 2. Both are sandbox games and both give the player huge choice over their actions. This is an example of a highly non-linear game, and it really does feel like a game. If a game is filled with moments like these you have a situation were the story can be completely and utterly player engineered. The player has full control over the story, and he feels this. Games with branching storylines tend to not feel as liberal as they intend to, I often feel like I'm missing out when I know there is another storyline I am missing. The key is to make the player feel completely in control of the story, as though it's player engineered but isn't as free as the player thinks.
The Walking Dead game, although obviously linear, has moments of this done very well. I was discussing my experiences of the game with a friend when I noticed that our opinions of the characters vary wildly. They hated a character that I loved. The game makes you feel involved in the story far more than a television show because you do genuinely have control over things, even though they are minor it makes a noticeable difference in the players experience.
When crafting stories for games one must remember that the player will enjoy a story he experienced far more than one he was told. Games are not like movies, and I think it is completely valid to think of storytelling in games as something different. To prove my point I will ask you to leave a comment telling me your most memorable moment in games. Is it a scripted moment? Or is it the time you went hunting in Red Dead Redemption and you fought a huge and vicious bear to the death?
I asked myself after thinking about player engineered moments if the actual systems of mechanics in a game could tell a story rather than dialogue and cutscenes. It's a difficult question to answer, although I do believe they can. It's the other side of my previous argument. If the player does things that make sense in the world, they will contribute to the character development and therefore the story of the game. Bioshock Infinite uses subtle psychological cues to influence a player's actions so they compliment the story. A particular example is when (SPOILERS) the statue in the city is collapsing, you walk out into the beach and everyone is looking at the statue. Your normal human reactions cause you to look in the direction of the statue, because everyone else is. This is superb, as you have shown the player something, without taking control away from him, and without using cutscenes or cinematics.
Another example of telling a story with few cutscenes is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. The game has no dialogue, although very effectively tells a story through body language. Can you imagine trying to sway a player's thoughts by the way a character moves? It is an effective means of conveying emotion, just as I mentioned earlier, you show the player, instead of telling them. They will connect the dots and create a story. An important factor here is empathy. Emotional empathy is very powerful and can be used effectively to draw the player into the role of a character. If the events around the character in the game would make you feel sad, and you craft animations that make the character look sad, the player will follow. This is another thing games have over movies and books. The feeling of empathy is far more powerful and involving than the sympathy of watching someone else.
When the player has so much control over the story they may create situations were someone in real life would say “this is the stuff you cannot write”. This is perfect, when the player is feeling so involved in the world they can engineer a story from what they find around them, that makes sense in their head, a story in which they feel a part of, like it is real life. This is the power of games, a drastically different medium of entertainment and storytelling than anything we have ever seen before.
As I briefly mentioned earlier player interpretation is a factor here, a factor we cannot ignore. Although I am comfortable in the knowledge that that is okay. Think of a painting, think of how a painter can tell a story using just a simple image, were the viewer's interpretation of the image fill in the gaps and create the story. Games are no different. This is also an argument towards games being art, as they share the way in which the player or viewer interprets something to create the story.
I am confident we are heading towards this in the games industry. 2013 has been the best year for storytelling in my opinion, games like BioShock Infinite, the Last of Us and indie games like Gone Home, The Stanley Parable and Brothers have made mind blowing leaps towards what storytelling in games should be like.
We must never forget that games are a completely different medium to anything humans have encountered before, therefore it is unfair to compare the storytelling in games to books and movies and then say it is bad. It's not bad it's just very different, it's storytelling where the player's imagination tells the story, however it is possible for you to have some control over how the player's thoughts and imagination go, therefore you can tell a story, like never before.
I'm a young game designer and developer, I am fascinated about stories in games, and so I spend a considerable amount of time researching topics like the one above. I then write these articles as a way to express my thoughts on the subject.