Storytelling in Games

There is so much potential for games to become an engaging storytelling medium. This potential is not being fulfilled.

Most games seem to fall into two categories when it comes to writing. They either do not understand storytelling techniques, and fail to tell an intriguing story, or try to imitate film, which can come across like it can not decide what it wants to be (like every David Cage game).

This article will examine effective techniques developers can use to communicate narrative in compelling ways.

Hyper Light Drifter

So many game studios are under the impression that adding choice also adds depth to the story. However, because it scales up the game, designers are sometimes forced to choose between quantity or quality. In the end, to reduce the scope, all the branching choices eventually come back together; just giving the impression of complexity. Bioshock got away with this as it relates to the game’s themes of libertarianism and the illusion of choice.

Fallout 3 is a great example of a game that pulls off effective repercussions for choices, forcing players to question their morals and what they have to gain or lose.

Level and world design is another important tool in the game developer’s toolkit. A location can hint at the lore or even foreshadow an upcoming event, like a boss fight. If you want to see this in action, play Hyper Light Drifter. The world is filled with little breadcrumbs that hint at a post-apocalyptic past which the player tries to unravel like a mystery.

In filmmaking, the number one rule is ‘Show Don’t Tell’; if you are going to communicate something, use the visuals. Game designers have now adopted the view of ‘Do Don’t Show’; which means that information show be conveyed in gameplay rather than cutscenes.

Just think of the Assassin Creed franchise. The character’s strengths, weaknesses and personality are portrayed to the player through the core mechanics.

When cutscenes are shown, it is important to keep the character consistent with the gameplay. Stray too far and you get ‘Ludonarrative Dissonance’, which is when the player feels like the character they are playing as is different to the character the story is trying to portray.

When talking about story in gameplay, it is important to clarify the difference between ‘Game Story’ and ‘Player Story’. The game story is the narrative that is carefully crafted by the studio, while the player story is the unique experience that arises from emergent gameplay. All game stories lie on a spectrum between these two, with linear stories (like Uncharted) on one end and open-ended experiences (like Civilisation) on the other.


The way these two approaches differ the most is how they approach ‘Character Development’. Game Story normally borrows from other media, such as film and literature, where the player character starts the story believing in a lie or a desire. By the end of the narrative, the character discover what they actually need to believe, which often conflicts with their original beliefs.

Player Stories take the approach of developing the player themselves, either by unlocking new abilities or through learning new mechanics, techniques or even the story’s underlying themes and messages.

While we are on the subject of themes, there are very few games that actually try to explore a subject matter like film or literature has. This can be narrowed down to the design process, which starts with a core mechanic before the studio even considers story or level design. Designing with the theme at the centre of the game also comes with the problem of implementing it into every element of the game.

This does not mean that it is impossible. Nier: Automata and Catherine are great examples of games that have a deeper meaning behind the surface-level gameplay experience.

Nier Automata 1

Due to the added level of interactivity, games have the promise to be such an engaging storytelling medium. However, the industry still has a long way to go, especially as many players and gamers alike are absolutely against video game narrative. If games are to evolve, we must be open to new ideas and allow professionals to bring in ideas from other artistic mediums and experiment.

Although I believe one could never replace another, games truly have the potential to rival films, television and literature.

David R Mincer

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