The Art of Storytelling in Video Games
Should Games Tell Stories?
Not all of the games. But if we’d like, we can as stories allow us to invoke feelings beyond simple enjoyment of a mechanic. Stories are the connective tissue between the game’s experience and lasting impression. Stories allow developers to reach the human spirit and interact with it on a level much deeper than endorphins and adrenaline emitted in response to a fun moment in a game. They allow us to convey a message, create a world or birth a hero all of which wouldn’t exist without the game.
This article will discuss the stories games tell, what tools we have as game developers and designers to tell stories and what make stories in games unique amongst all entertainment.
Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey
Campbell’s the hero’s journey breaks down every story into 3 parts or arcs, this is based on stories dating as far back as the ancient Greek myths all the way forward to our own lives.
Every story starts with a Departure, where the hero is called to adventure, said hero is of common descent, a nobody or someone who isn’t perceived as a hero, yet there’s a task to accomplish and our hero may even be confronted by a mentor or seek one out.
Next, we have the Initiation, this is the journey to the goal. It may be a physical journey, a spiritual one or both. This is the long term or final task of the game, the quest or mission the player sets out to accomplish. This is the north star of the game, and while it is important. It is not more important than the other parts. Game’s nowaday tend to focus only on the Initiation and leave the departure and later, the return to meager text windows or briefings.
One of the most important facets of this part is for the hero to change.
Lastly, we have the Return, here the hero accomplishes his task, the hero is rewarded with riches, the hand of a fair maiden or simply peace. The journey has been long, it affected the hero and the world around them. The video game’s industry has been constantly evolving and adapting its stories, yet the staples of Joseph Campbell’s work remain true and are the foundation of a good story.
Storytelling Techniques and Approaches
So video game stories aren’t that much different in essence from every other story. Yet, they have quite a bit of advantages over a book or a movie both in nature and tools at their disposal. In the next part of the article, we’ll discuss different tools and techniques in video games storytelling. The last bit will touch on the differences in nature of storytelling in video games.
Progression and Change
Video games allow players to experience tangible progression and change over the course of the game. This is due to the fact they engage with the game’s characters and world constantly and directly, resulting in changes affecting the experience itself directly.
For example, a sci-fi game with a story beat that results in a sequence or segment without gravity changes the fundamental way this segment is played. This change is immediately noticeable and has a direct impact on the players themselves. This is a powerful tool to not only tell a story but also show players the consequences and effects of the events that transpired or their own choices.
Another form of this is character progression, as the game progresses players expect it to both get harder but also to become stronger themselves as experience is accumulated. This is another form of telling the story, for example, as games progress, the clothing and armor sets tend to become more intricate and grandiose.
Cutscenes, Encounters and QTE
Games are interactive by nature, yet they don’t have to be so all the time. Many games, especially asian games, use linear, set, predetermined segments to tell parts of the story. Examples of this include Cutscene (in-engine or pre-rendered, often players will look to see their own character in the cutscene), unique encounter segments such as intro cinematics or unique animations for the introduction of a new foe or QTEs (Quick Time Events) where players are put on rails to press certain keys to have pre-determined action happen. This is an advanced form of a cutscene where the interactivity still plays a role.
These techniques share the same strength as their weakness, they are predetermined and linear, resulting in much more control over the pacing and the conveyed story yet are benefitting less from the interactiveness and uniqueness of games.
Stories in games go beyond the player character and what happens to them. These are worlds with a past, things have happened and stories have transpired before the player character’s started. This is just one form of Environmental Storytelling that can be put in place through the structures and environment themselves.
Another layer of environmental storytelling lies in puzzles and the interaction with the environment, whether it’s the way secrets are hidden and levels are constructed or the effects players can have on the environment, there’s an interaction between the player and the world, a story that has happened and another that unfolds. It's important to give these two dynamics room to flourish.
Player Character Traits and Mechanics
The abilities and tools available to the player are also telling a story, a character that starts with no abilities is different from an expert martial artist.
How does the character move, what physical skills and capabilities they have, are they proficient in any space? What is their race, sex, which emotions they convey and how? What do they know about themselves?
All of these questions not only define the game’s mechanics, they also tell the story of the character, their past and potential future. These same questions apply to every other character in the game.
Puzzles and Metroidvanias
The Metroidvania subgenre refers to games where the player unlocks abilities which allow them to access previously inaccessible areas of the game’s world. This concept originated with the game Metroid and Castlevania (big surprise) and are not only of mechanical benefit to the game, they also give value to revisiting areas. Additionally they allow the designers to not only tell a story about the past of the game’s world, it also allows to foreshadow the future of the player’s experience.
This adds depth, invokes intrigue and gives room for players to see how the events they have gone through expanded their own capabilities and by extension, show growth throughout the story.
Relationships and Empathy
Our characters not only have relationships with the players and the world, but also with the other characters in the world. And while the conversations between characters themselves or with the player character are one way to tell a story, the events that transpire affect the characters around us as well.
These relationships give players room to grow an empathetic connection with the player character and the world around them, from Joel and Ellie to Vaas, ally or villain, the relationships can serve as goals and motivations for players as well as tell the story of what happened and what may happen.
Breaking the Habit
There are many games out there, many re-use the same tropes and have players anticipating to receive the same stories. An amnesiac protagonist, a revenge driven villain, a damsel in distress found in another castle, it is these tropes we can abuse to break the player’s habits and have them at the edge of their seats. A notorious example is Bioshock, players follow their journey triggered by requests under the guise of “Would You Kindly” and without spoiling too much end up with moral questions regarding choice, fate and predetermined destiny resulting in the coined trilogy term: “A man chooses, a slave obeys”. In essence, players are requested to be kind and help, only to be proven played and used in the game’s greater scheme of events.
Breaking the Habit also encapsulates breaking the fourth wall, humorous quips and other various unexpected twists and turns that allow developers to play on expectations, offer major twists and sometimes much required breathing room to pace the story as well.
UI and Contextual Storytelling
Games have the potential to be immersive experiences with worlds that can feel very much lived in and unique. Yet, as they are still games, the UI (User Interface) and HUD (Heads Up Display) can often be immersion breaking and yet, unavoidable due to design issues, complexity or other design concepts and issues. Designers have found over the years ways to turn this predicament into a strength and a part of the story, from equipment physically affecting the player characters movement and abilities to how much information is actually shown on the HUD or left for players to figure out themselves. There’s a difficult tradeoff between assisting players and immersing them.
A great example of storytelling through the UI can be found in Skyrim, there’s no minimap and thus players must rely on a compass to guide them and another menu for the map. The developers were then tasked with creating a map that is reliable, readable, helpful and doesn’t require players to go back and forth with it constantly.
Skyrim’s map tells the story of the world; cold peaks, swamps, roads, castles and more can be seen before discovery and rather quickly players learn to orient themselves without the use of icons which only appear based on proximity. This interaction with the map promoted intrigue, exploration and mystery.
Only a Part of the Story
In most games, the game’s world has been there before the players entered it at a point in time and will remain there after they have left it.
Additionally, the player’s journey has effects on the world and its future.
All of these serve as both core pillars of the story and tools with which to tell it.
You’re a convicted prisoner aboard a ship on its way to a prison island. As you wake up during the voyage, you overhear the guards discussing there’s been a murder aboard, you offer to talk to the other prisoners and during your explorations, the perpetrator ends up being a powerful witch which escapes her shackles, summons a horrible beast to destroy the ship and escapes. As you fend off monsters and the beast, the ship sinks and a mysterious voice helps you survive and drift ashore.
This is the prologue of Divinity Original Sin 2, being already a prisoner on a ship creates interest in why you got there, how and what happened before. The events that transpire move the player character from another prisoner to an irregularity as the story begins. The Departure is clear, a connection to the past is established.
Sending a Message
Video games offer a unique platform for storytelling, allowing for interactive, immersive, and unforgettable experiences. From creating memorable characters and worlds to using unique tools and techniques, video game designers and writers have the power to craft stories that captivate players and send important messages. The examples of indie games such as This War of Mine, Paper Please, and Thomas was Alone demonstrate that great stories don't have to be expensive to make a lasting impact. The techniques discussed in the article are just a part of the toolkit that can be used to create captivating stories in video games.
What will be the story you tell?
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