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Games Are a Whole New Form of Storytelling

Peer Reviewed by Dragonsoulj, jbadams, Josh Vega

design story writing
Stories in games are always compared to other mediums, and it never goes well. I think we need to rethink how games tell stories, and consider them a new medium of storytelling.

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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.

This is a repost from my own site: www.peripherallabs.com

About the Author(s)

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.


GDOL (Gamedev.net Open License)


Nov 22 2013 09:16 PM

I personally think that video games will only be art if it manages to convey an experience that would not be possible in any other medium.


The problem I see with storytelling in games is that it just copies movies, a 'blockbuster' type game if you will. The player's experience is still in the mercy of the game's story (it's no different than a book, or a movie, only this time you control some parts)


I think one very good example of a game as art is Rohrer's Passage. This is because there is absolutely no way you could copy it in any other medium: the 'story', or 'experience' is told completely using the mechanics. How you play the game shows the story in its form.


I think good story-telling in games and art games are very different. MGS1 had a pretty good story, but I would not consider it 'art-sy'. MGS2 however, had a pretty 'OK' story, but I consider it full blown art, because it doesn't tell it story at face-value, but through mechanics (how the game plays).

Nov 23 2013 04:58 PM

I think impeccable storytelling in games will come when the technology and intuition for giving a virtual world more creative, literary and technical depth than ever before finally arrives. Video games today are in a primitive form compared to what they're aspiring to be, despite the leaps of innovation in storytelling, graphics, interaction and game design thus far. There are still so many limitations.


Making a game that has multiple (seemingly endless) story branches for compelling replayability, plus all the polish it takes to enhance immersion, with the right mechanics for play takes a lot of money, time and effort to do. More innovation is needed to really get that far, and get it right. There is also the cultural issue associated with games today, though there are more gamers that want to see games take a new direction. A lot of games today are more so focused on the flash of new technology and gamer tropes than they are about making creative masterpieces within the medium. We need to give games the time to mature and grow. They've gone as far as eliminating the uncanny valley, allowing for more believable characters in story what’s the next step for computer entertainment.

Nov 23 2013 10:10 PM

@-Crimsix- I disagree. There are very old movies that are now considered as art, and all of them did not even have the pinch of technology and even budget that modern movies now have. What they did have however, was impeccable imagination and masterful usage of what they're provided of. 


I also disagree that a seemingly endless story branch is innovation - it is nothing more than a glorified sandbox game. To be honest, I see it as a weakness.


Let me play the game once, and just leave me in awe to the pure genius of the game. Replayability is for mundane enjoyment.

Nov 24 2013 04:58 AM

Great article.


Although I disagree that Bioshock Infinite was a good example of storytelling. It was a sequence of scripted in-game cutscenes(even if the player viewed them from a first person perspective, they are still cutscenes) with breaks of dull arena-style gameplay.

Nov 24 2013 05:05 AM

@Boulougou I agree with you to a certain extent. I never actually said it is a good example of storytelling, in fact it's not the perfect example of storytelling, however I appreciated how it was able to show you things without taking away the players control, this is an admirable feature in my eyes. If this aspect was taken out and improved, it has potential.

Nov 25 2013 06:47 AM

I fully agree that the most memorable moments in games have been story created by myself, in my own imagination, arising from the mechanics of the game. Everything from the goals I set for myself in minecraft, to the quick and fatal stories that evolve while playing rougelikes, to the epic stories that evolve while playing strategy games like civ and total war.


I quickly get very bored with those games that takes you through a pre-set story where I as a player is just forced to "act out" the action scenes.

Nov 25 2013 09:08 PM
"I read books on game design which stated that games couldn't tell decent stories and probably never will."

Get your money back.

The whole 'but is it art' controversy - concerning any work, of any type - is recognized by sane people as the domain of sophomoric idiots who spend their free time sniffing their own farts. The value of a thing is not determined by the arbitrary labels that are applied to it.

Games can tell great stories that books and film can't, and games can express other things as well. The medium is young and extremely versatile, and can be used in many ways. The question that deserves to be asked of a work is, "Is it GOOD?" There are a lot of great games out there, and there are some great stories in many of them.
Dec 02 2013 05:38 AM

The problem I find is that it is very difficult to hit a huge level of immersion with a story.  Every player is different so there will always be individuals who think a story was good or a story was bad.  Here is a take from my perspective of a few games I have played recently. 


Eve Online (sandbox space MMO).  In eve there is lore no real story but the game world is so open you easily become immersed because it becomes your world and your world gets influenced by other players just like you influence theirs.  This is the best example of story and where games should be.


David mentioned The Last of Us as a great story for me I did not like it I feel I wasted my $60 on the game.  I wanted to like it but the story after the initial opening completely lost me from an immersion point of view.  I just could not get hooked.  I think the sometimes difficult tedious survival mechanics get in the way of enjoying it.  (I do not like easy but so many of the game mechanics for me felt like it just pulled me out of the amazing world they created)


Call of Duty Ghosts.  Now many people say the call of duty campaigns are horrible.  On the other hand I think sure they are cliché story arcs but the way it is presented is very immersive.  I get sucked into the combat to the point where I fear for the characters life and it effects all of my tactical decisions.  The way they tell the story just really engages my imagination.


Heavy Rain.  OMG immersive.  More like a movie then a game as most gameplay was quick time events but it was still one of the most immersive stories I have ever been witness too.  All of the decisions really feel like they had a impact on the outcome.


Final Fantasy XIII and XIV (mmo reborn version).  For me this was very immersive.  Square really knows how to get you to care about what is going on.  The only issue I think they have especially in XIII is they like difficult way too much.  Once you get to a boss that is really difficult and you need to spend hours like 4 hours or more reloading saves trying to figure out how to beat it.  Kills the immersion and flow of the story.


So I do have a few conclusions.  It is hard to have complex difficult mechanics along with a immersive story.  I find that the second I start to struggle with the games mechanics that the story fades away and you are left with nothing but frustration.  I am a decent gamer I like a challenge I hate over complex mechanics. Or situations that just seem like a giant road block you can not get passed without hours of trying over and over.


The real key to hook someone like me into a game is to have the amazing immersive story combined with fluid gameplay that melds into the story.  There should never be something there in the game that says hey you suck you can't figure this out.  The second I have to stop playing and min/max strategy to beat a boss you just lost me and odds are I will put the game away.  I hate min/max (have to have the perfect strategy) because it completely takes me out of control of the characters destiny.


Fluid and engaging is all I ask.  Call of Duty, Assassins Creed, Elder Scrolls Skyrim did a good job with this.  Last of Us and FFXIII did a bad job of this for me.  Do you think it is funny that a amazing every loves the game like the Last of Us can actually be a bad game to someone else? 

Dec 11 2013 07:46 AM

I actually wrote a paper in my English class about how video games should be viewed as a form of art. I think this article explains the conundrum that we find in video games. They are just so new in respect to all other mediums. Look back at the time period when movies were first displayed. They were viewed for a long time negatively and now are one of the most used storytelling devices.


I think in the next few years we will really see the development flourish in the ways that stories are being told within video games. Which we are already witnessing in some of the upcoming titles if they can deliver on their aspirations.


I really enjoyed your article, great read on the subject, and not one coming from some outside snob who has never truly experienced the story told behind video games.

Dec 11 2013 10:27 AM

The problem I find is that some games are trying to be movies. The more they try, the worse they seem to be. A game's first and main objective is to be fun in my opinion, and it seems pretty much logical. It's called a GAME for a reason. If a game foregoes the fun part and focuses on the story only, why would anyone play it again? My fondest memories are of FUN games, if they have a likeable story that's just icing on the cake. There are exceptions like Planescape: Torment, but games like that are an anomaly. At least Torment tried to be a book, not a movie, and it worked more for it despite its arguably lacking combat mechanics.


Anyway, a game can tell an amazing story if it focuses on its strenghts. I'm of the mind that a game's main strenght in storytelling is in its "show, not tell" capabilities. Point in case: The Souls series.


Most people will tell you that they have no story whatsoever. And well, I could agree and disagree with them. The games do not shove anything down your throat, but if you care, if you look for it, there is an awesome story behind all that is happening. If you pay attention to the details, the way it is told and the way the player can discover his/her own circumstances is a clear indication that the developer knows what they are doing.


It may not be the most original story ever, but the way it is conveyed to the player, THAT, I think, is the best strenght that games have in storytelling. A game can try to emulate a movie and fail miserably at it (many//most AAA games in the last few years), or go for a book style storytelling like Panescape: Torment which seems to actually work, but the average person doesn't care and won't read anything. OR they can be stupid fun, and take advantage of the atmosphere, the scenery, the items, etc., to tell you a fantastic tale. The Souls games are a lot of fun to play (depends on the player of course, some simply don't like them), they are not a big hit because of their story, but because they are fun. For those that care, like I do, there is a story for you, and damn I love it.


Games are not movies. The so called best games of this year, like Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider, and I don't know what else... I think they are terrible. They seemed to be made by a team of Hollywood rejects instead of a team of game developers with their overfocus on story and characters (which sucked anyway), instead of being fun and ended up in mediocrity in both story AND gameplay. What was the point of sacrificing the fun aspect of your game if the story is terrible or mediocre?

Jan 30 2014 09:19 PM

After my research on gaming and games, I'd have to say that games aren't a form of storytelling. I just don't feel comfortable calling them a form of storytelling. 


Sure, you can tell a story alongside a game, and yes you tell a story using game design (location, characters, plot etc) but games in general are not a form of storytelling. 


I like this definition of games from Wikipdedia:


"Crawford's definition may thus be rendered as[original research?]: an interactive, goal-oriented activity, with active agents to play against, in which players (including active agents) can interfere with each other."


I like the assessment of games by "sunandshadow" made here:




as to the effect games have on society, and what makes games so integral to society. 

Feb 17 2014 05:56 PM

Games have always had the possibility and the evidence that storytelling in games is one of the greatest methods of portraying a story. They take the reader (a.k.a the player), and immerse them deep into the plot. Though what makes video game the greatest methods of storytelling, is the fact that yes every story will have the same ending but the path that is taken to achieve that ending is changed person to person.  

/ 2l3abgame
/ chungcuviet
May 06 2016 06:44 PM

Making a game that has multiple (seemingly endless) story branches for compelling replayability, plus all the polish it takes to enhance immersion, with the right mechanics for play takes a lot of money, time and effort to do flc star tower. More innovation is needed to really get that far, and get it right tu hiep plaza. There is also the cultural issue associated with games today, though there are more gamers that want to see games take a new direction. A lot of games today are more so focused on the flash of phu my complex new technology and gamer tropes than they are about making creative masterpieces within the medium. We need to give games the time to mature and grow imperial plaza. They've gone as far as eliminating the uncanny valley riverside garden, allowing for more believable characters in story what’s the next step for computer entertainment.

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