Storytelling in Games

I’m surprised there is a debate about whether storytelling belongs in games. Story is how humanity communicates. It is the way we share experiences. It is how we convey meaning. With advancing technology and the tremendous variety of games being created, the possibilities for storytelling in the video game medium appear endless.

Game and Story are both broad terms, as broad as the term Art. Many tales of storytelling abuse in games have their roots in designers trying to force movie, book or comic story structures and techniques into this new medium. Games are not passively consumed, it is an interactive art form. Applying story to match the scope of the game medium is both a challenge and vast opportunity.

Key questions you should be asking of your game in the concept phase:

  • do you need story or will storytelling elements without a narrative suffice?
  • is story a key element of your game?
  • is the player the protagonist of the story?
  • does your story interfere with, or enhance, gameplay?

Do you need story?
There are many games that don’t need a narrative. Arcade games are a prime example. However, as pinball machine owners discovered decades ago, brand the beast and usage increases. I refer to flavor. You don’t need a narrative, but having a theme, atmosphere and characters to flavor the game grabs player’s attention. Why do you think those birds are angry? Why do those pigs in their glass houses snicker at you when your catapulted birds fail? Flavor. Angry Birds, taunting pigs, catapults and cheers are all storytelling elements beautifully applied to enhance the gaming experience without getting in the way of gameplay.

Is story a key element of your game?
In the early stage of concept design, decide whether or not story is a key element. Don’t try to tack a story on when the game is nearly done. Think about it from the beginning. If your game is heavy on story, set the narrative before you begin game production. Be willing to let the story evolve as the game iterates without jeopardizing the original story concept. Production should be fluid, the story should be, too.
No matter the type of game, story will enhance the player experience, even if the actual story narrative isn’t in the game. If you decide not to include a narrative, be aware of the story elements – setting, mood, central conflicts, characters. How many first person shooters are there on the market? Which stand out? In each case, you will find strong story elements – characters, locations, chrome.

Is the player the protagonist?
If your game includes a story, make the player the protagonist. The story can include a cast of other characters, many of them bigger and badder than the player. But if the outcome of the story is determined by anyone other than the player, rethink your story. Few players mind having their butts saved upon occasion by another hero – Gandalf or Obi Wan types. But make a habit of it and it quickly becomes irritating. Few people are happy playing Robin in the long-term when Batman is around. The player’s actions should have THE significant impact on the story.

Does your story interfere with gameplay?
There are ample opportunities to tell a story in games. Find a balance between gameplay and story. Be aware of that balance. Ideally, a player should be able to play the game without having to concentrate on the story. At the same time, the story should be rich enough to invite the player to drill down for more details. Give the fans something to hook their hats on, even if the details are found in other mediums – comics, books, etc.
Which leads to the importance of having a plan for your IP. Your game is intellectual property. Maximize its worth! But that’s another post.

If you are taking the time to develop a game without thinking about story, reconsider. From a business standpoint, there is a reason Grecco-Roman wrestling has a tiny fraction of the audience of WWE “rasslin.” Story and characters draw an audience. The biggest tennis match of the 70s was between a Grand Slam champion and a retiree. It wasn’t just a tennis match, it was a story, the Battle of the Sexes!

The most successful games out there do a fantastic job of storytelling in the digital game medium. But the art form of digital games is just getting started. Keep exploring! Find the storytelling strengths of your game and play with them.

Tony Graham

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