GD Column 24: Should Games Have Stories?

The following was published in the February 2013 issue of Game Developer magazine…

Stories and games have always had an uneasy marriage. From the beginning, designers have written stories into their games, giving the player a fixed beginning, a narrative path to follow, and a preset ending. At the same time, many players flocked to games because of their lack of narrative structure; a game experience is a chance to create a story, not to submit oneself to a designer’s unpublished novel.

At the root of this problem is an almost theological dilemma – can a game designer tell a story if the player’s choices actually matter? If the most important element of a game is its interactivity, then every static plot point a designer crams into the experience takes away from the centrality of the player. Put another way, if a game has a spoiler, is it really still a game?

To be clear, with the exception of a few abstract game like Tetris, almost all games benefit from story elements – an interesting setting, a distinctive tone, memorable characters, engaging dialogue, dramatic conflict, and so on. The best games have characters and settings that rival those of any other media – consider GLaDOS from Portal or Rapture from BioShock.

However, the actual narrative of a game – meaning the series of events which determines the plot – is the hardest element to reconcile with the essential interactivity of games. For this reason, narrative cannot be handled as it is with books or movies, in which the story is the core element that everything else must support.

Consider how Sid Meier added story elements to Pirates!, a game set in a period dripping with narrative possibilities. Instead of creating a single swashbuckling tale, with fixed plot points and a preset ending, he filled the game with the bits and pieces of a traditional pirate story. Depending on his choices, the player can rescue a long-lost sister, duel an evil Spaniard, survive a treasonous mutiny, discover buried treasure, escape from prison, and woo the governor’s daughter. Upon retirement, the game displays the notable events of the pirate’s life, chronicling the ebbs and flows of fortune. While the plot of a single playthrough would suffer in comparison to that of an authored work, the events have a special meaning for its intimate audience of one.

However, not every game is well-suited to become a dynamic story generator; some themes and mechanics are best handled against a mostly fixed backdrop. A hero needs an evil wizard to slay; a soldier needs an enemy to fight; and a plumber needs a princess to rescue. The solution is to use a light touch, to suggest rather than to dictate, to let go of the very idea of plot. Let the player explore the world and then assemble the final story in her own head.

“The Rolling Stones confirmed that lyrics are most evocative when just short of indecipherable.” – Paul Evans, The Rolling Stone Album Guide

Indeed, the role of narrative in games is more akin to the role of lyrics in music. A song’s words give the piece its context, its mood, and its setting while still leaving a suggestive gap for the listener’s imagination. Indeed, recordings often have lyrics that are inaudible, leaving the meaning intentionally obtuse. Would a writer ever do the same with the text of a novel? Further, listeners often enjoy songs in a foreign language. How many readers pick up a book in a different tongue? The exact meaning of a lyric is not its primary role; great songs leave room – often, a great deal of room – for the listener. So too must a game’s narrative leave room for the player.

Consider LIMBO, the puzzle platformer noted for its atmosphere, with its monochromatic tone and minimalist audio. The game’s story revolves around a very primal quest – a boy’s search for his missing sister – and raises more questions than it answers. Why is the boy looking for her in a dark, mysterious forest? Why is he chased by a monstrous spider? Who are the kids trying to attack him? Although LIMBO is completely linear, the lack of a traditional narrative – with a plot and dialogue and answers – means the story must be written by the player.

Another example is Atom Zombie Smasher, the micro-RTS about a patchwork military trying to stop a zombie apocalypse in the fictional South American city of Nuevos Aires. The game is peppered with gonzo vignettes (“Esposito scores the winning goal. Minutes later, he’s eaten alive.”), showing how the citizens handle the onslaught. The epilogue is a masterpiece of bizarro narrative, with scenes of a cyborg El Presidente and AK-47 fruit trees backed by President Eisenhower’s famous “military-industrial complex” speech.

Most importantly, Atom Zombie Smasher creates an evocative world without a traditional, canned narrative; the vignettes, in fact, are delivered at random during the campaign, letting the player’s imagination fill in the gaps. Brendon Chung, the game’s designer, points out that ”piecing information together is fun and knowing the work trusts and respects you is satisfying.” The effect is perhaps a bit too jarring for a mainstream audience, but the result is that Atom Zombie Smasher feels so much more open and alive than any pre-digested corridor shooter or bloated, dialogue-heavy RPG. A fixed plot is the enemy of player engagement.

“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” – Soren Kierkegaard

One of the most tantalizing aspects of mixing video games and narrative is the possibility of interactive fiction, in which the player gets to make the big decisions in an otherwise traditional story. So far, this potential is unrealized as the player’s choices are usually limited to selecting between a few preset branches. Although there may be more than one ending, as long as the outcomes are finite, interactivity only promises a difference in degree, not in kind.

As the cost of production rises, developers cannot risk creating sections of a game without guaranteeing that the player will experience them. Thus, regardless of player choice, the interactive storyline must synchronize at key points. The plot of Knights of the Old Republic exemplifies this problem. The player can pursue a good or evil path, but both paths lead to the same place; the villain Darth Malak must be defeated, either to stop him (the good path) or to usurp him (the evil path). Even with completely divergent ethical paths, no outcome is possibly without Malak’s death.

These static plotlines lead to a jarring disconnect for many players, who might spend tens of hours playing an RPG but have no lasting memory of the story because it has nothing to do with the player’s own interests or choices. Ultimately, people write stories to share what it means to be human. What does that goal mean in the context of games? The core element of most stories is the choices made by the characters; the core of games is the choices made by the players. Thus, what makes games meaningful must be the choices made by the players themselves. Can a game ever tell a specific story and still preserve the importance of player choice?

The action RPG Bastion successfully tackles this dilemma. The game tells the story of a mysterious “Calamity” that shattered the world into pieces. As the player progresses, he learns of why the weapon which caused the disaster was created and what went wrong when it was triggered. At the game’s conclusion, the player must choose between either reversing time to possibly prevent the Calamity or to evacuate the survivors to a safer place and a new start.

What is most interesting about this decision is what happens next – which is that almost nothing happens. The game simply ends, with only a single image reflecting the player’s choice. The designers do not pretend that they are giving the player actual agency with this decision. Instead, the choice becomes almost meditative, a simple reflection of the player’s own nature. Would you undo your greatest mistake, or would you move forward as a new person?

In Bastion, the player learns about herself through the act of making a choice, not from seeing what some designer thinks should be the result. In The Walking Dead, the designers emphasize player choice by providing feedback on how one’s choices compare with those of other players. These results similarly illuminate the player’s own personality by showing which of his decisions go with or go against society at large.

Games that focus purely on the designer’s plot choices ignore that the most important part of a game is the player. Putting a story, regardless of its power or depth, inside a game is actually a crutch, an easy way out that stunts the advancement of our form. Games must leave room for the player, not just within the rules and the mechanics and the systems, but within the story as well.

5 thoughts on “GD Column 24: Should Games Have Stories?

  1. Hey Soren,

    I completely agree that games are primarily about interaction, thus the role of the traditional story is fairly limited for a video game. However, I think people are being too specific from what they are borrowing from traditional stories. Just like painting is not just about drawing, but the composition of the scene, the drama to try to pull you into the world portrayed through one static image, the story is also about the world building and uses the character’s preset actions as a way to highlight and show you their personalities and what drives them.

    In a videogame, all of this is a bit more muted, but I feel like games like Torment are a good way forward. I think the Bastion approach is too primitive to really be considered. Would it not be more engaging if the player were constantly acting, even on small scale effects, instead of just watching a more traditional story? I guess I am not sure what you are imagining when you say that.

  2. Not everything that happens in the interaction between you and the products we call games is the result of you actually playing.

    Games are about challenge willingly taken. You are not playing a game when you watch a cutscene on a JRPG, you’re just watching a tiny movie. You’re not playing a game when you navigate dialogue trees, you’re just deciding what kind of story you like best*.

    * note that you could definitely make games out of these situations.

    Having said that, and contrary to your own recollections, I find people really like having a story in tandem with their games… even when they’re not playing that story at all.

    The idea that we can make everything in a game product play as a game is interesting and worth exploring. Suggesting all games should work like that, however, feels like a stretch. It feels like telling all the people that already like the experiences current games provide, that they’re having the wrong kind of fun.

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