How Stories Are Told in Games

Posted by Lisa Galarneau on June 3, 2014 in Editorial -- Share:

Storytelling has been fundamental to human experience for thousands of years (probably the earliest form of entertainment), and yet, novel methods to tell a great story emerge all the time. From books to radio, television and games, learning how to tell a compelling story in any medium means understanding its unique properties and how to best immerse people in a rich narrative landscape. How to build a fictional universe…

The difference between games and other media is that games allow for a great deal of variation beyond linear storytelling.  The story is as much a creation of the player as it is of the designer or developer.  The key in game design is to create a flexible universe of possibilities that allow the story to emerge.

Games are very good at this from the get-go. Describing the premise of an interactive title, in many cases, begins with “You play as…” or “You take on the role of….” These statements highlight the mountains they allow us to move in the long-stagnant field of storytelling. By their very nature, games change the way we relate to the tales we are no longer hearing but experiencing. It parallels the differences between sympathy and empathy. “That seems sad” versus “I’ve experienced that, and I know how that sadness feels. - Ethan Clevenger

Narrative and Storytelling

The narrative is the cohesive thread that runs through a story in order to guide a reader, viewer or player through a set of experiences.  According to Wikipedia, ‘A narrative (or story) is any account of connected events, presented to a reader or listener in a sequence of written or spoken words, or in a sequence of (moving) pictures’.

Hal Barwood at the Storytelling and Games Conference 2011

 
The Language of the Medium

Oral history and storytelling have been important mechanisms for passing knowledge from generation to generation, and also a way of celebrating a family or group’s personal history.  The storyteller always occupied a special place in a group through their use of detail and dramatic effect.

What is clear is that any new medium takes a while to develop a unique ‘language’ that can be used to tell stories.  The classic example is the advent of motion pictures.  Because vaudeville-type stage shows were a popular form of entertainment at the time, many early films utilized stationary cameras to capture a story unfolding on a stage.  It took a while for film-makers to realize what they could do with moving cameras, and that content could be edited and re-formatted to tell the story from a unique point of view.  Even then it took audiences a bit of time to adapt to what we consider normal in the modern era:  to be able to connect the dots between bits of action strung together through editing.

Building a Story Universe

Great stories rely on rich descriptions of the context for them: the creation of fictional universes, descriptions of background and scenery, etc.  Not all games require a back story, but the addition of story elements to even simple games like puzzles can make them more fun.

A game’s lore is the entirety of elements that create context for the story, such as fantasy, science fiction or historical elements.  It also includes the lore that emerges from a story universe that evolves over time.  Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are great examples of lore that extends well beyond one book, show or movie.

One commonly used approach is to use establish metaphors like character archetypes who follow a classic hero’s journey.  The Hero’s Journey was first proposed by Joseph Campbell, and the structure has been used to great effect in movies and television.  The components of the hero’s journey are:

1. Separation (The Call)

Many stories begin with a hero in crisis, unaware that he or she is a hero until they are given the call to action.

2. Supreme Ordeal (The Pit)

Since our hero is inexperienced, the challenges are great, but the hero grows stronger and more confident with each one.

3. Unification (via The Breakthrough)

The hero prevails and is now confident and recognized for his or her heroism.

 
The reason the hero’s journey works as a narrative device is that it resonates deeply with most of us and allows us to go on an emotional journey with the fictional protagonists.  Wouldn’t we all love to learn that we are greater than we can imagine, even if it means a hard slog to prove one’s mettle?  The risk is great, but so is the payoff, and that makes very good drama with peaks and valleys of emotion that we experience along with the heroes.

Games and Transmedia Storytelling Basics

Linear vs. Branching Stories
Linear stories ask the player to follow an established path through the narrative.  Branching stories allow for a range of options, like ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books.

Interactive Fiction
Interactive fiction
is a method of narrative used in adventure-type games.

Loops
In game design loops are the structures that define game play.

Split-narrative
A split-narrative involves a story told from more than one point of view.  Sometimes the narratives intersect at key points in the drama.

Cinematics, Cut-scenes and Non-player Characters (NPCs)
One of the traditional issues with video game storytelling has been how to progress the narrative beyond player interactions. Cinematics and cut-scenes serve this function by allowing developers to introduce additional live action or animated sequences to ‘fill in the blanks’ between player interactions. NPCs are often utilized to expose plot developments, as well.

Transmedia
Transmedia storytelling refers to the practice of telling a story across multiple media, like games and comics, or tv and film.

Some Great Storytelling from Big Fish

Other Resources

What games do you think tell the best stories?

Written by

Dr. Lisa Galarneau is a socio-cultural anthropologist, futurist and games researcher. She's been playing video games since 1981 (Pong!) and loves adventure-style games, RPGs, online games, simulations and anything novel. Her love for games has been passed onto her gamer kid, and she spends a lot of time observing and pondering the future of games.

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