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Storytelling in Videogames - Yes, it's possible!
by Bruno Patatas on 09/05/11 10:48:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I was reading the last issue of a popular games magazine, and then I reach a page with an article that had a title stating that “Games are not a storytelling medium”. This is a popular discussion, but saying that games can't tell a story (and will never be able to do it) just because there are no proofs of success in the last 40 years (as the same article stated) is a major disbelief in the possibility of videogames to evolve.

Another article somewhere on the web started with “Storytelling in video games – why it may never reach the level of books/movies”. My question here is: Why it should reach the level of books/movies? Why are Shakespeare works being used as an example against story in videogames?

You're talking about storytelling in movies? The story of the vast majority of blockbuster movies released in the last years pale in comparison with the intricate world building and plot of games like Bioshock or Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Is the “Alvin & The Chipmunks” movie a better storytelling experience than Bioshock? You tell me. I know what my answer is.

To say that a videogame cannot deliver a storytelling experience like the one you have on movies, radio or TV is simply... a wrong approach. Just as storytelling in radio is not similar to storytelling in TV, why do we always need to have this type of comparisons? Plus, we can never predict how the medium will evolve. If you watch a movie made in the 50's or 60's, you will see that it's fundamentelly different to a film made in the last 10 years. It's not just about pace. The dialogues construction, the action scenes rythm... It's about visual storytelling. Storytelling evolves, and a good storyteller has to adapt to take the best out of each medium. You can't say that only because something failed till now, it will not suceed in the future. That is the same than saying that evolution in games narrative stopped. And that's not true. At all!

Do you need further proof? Some of the biggest game publishers such as THQ and Electronic Arts are embrancing Transmedia – telling a story over multiple media using different media to tell different aspects of the story. This means that the big players from the games industry are only recently looking at storytelling and it's possibilities in the same way that Walt Disney has done since the 1920's...! This is because gaming is still quite a young field and game makers have still to master their craft in the same way that artists and filmmakers have been doing for decades.

Even storytellers famous in other mediums like movies can see videogames as a great platform for telling a story, as can be read in a recent interview with Guillermo Del Toro:

“(…) So I approach it as a medium that seems similar to film in some ways, but it’s actually very different. It has its own rules of language and storytelling. In this case, it’s not a passive audience. They’re far more active. I must say, in the past year, I’ve learned a lot working on “Insane,” which is good for me as a filmmaker. To me, videogames are a huge component of genre filmmaking in the future. You will always have Jim Jarmusch and Terrence Malick—there will always be quirkier independent films, but for the next big step for genre storytelling, videogames will be a major component.” 

When you have master storytellers like Guillermo Del Toro understanding that videogames are a storytelling medium, but with its own rules of language, why do we continue to have factions in the games industry saying the opposite?

Sometimes this discussion goes hand in hand with another one: That you should forget story because what matters is that games should always be fun. Do they? I know it's entertainment, but does they always need to provide fun? Or can they be entertaining without being fun? Drama movies are entertainment too, but I doubt you had fun watching “Schindler's List”. I am not a 12 year old kid that just looks for fun stuff to do. I like games that provide me with other feelings. Loneliness, terror, despair... They keep me entertained, but they don't provide me fun per se. If you ever shed a tear while playing a game, that was because of the story and not because of a fancy gameplay mechanic. 

We as an industry should always look at those who have been successful in other creative fields and learn from them.  

I , for one, welcome all the Writers, Narrative Designers and Directors who are joining this industry. Games like the brilliant Bastion are incorporating new elements – in this case the narrator -that helps not only on the storytelling side but also in involving the player in all the little things that happen in the game world. With videogames we have the opportunity to create new, exciting and important works that will entertain, inspire, educate. Transmedia is currently a buzzword in the tech and entertainment worlds.  It may take some time and persistence for it to pay off, but when it does, the dividends promise to be huge.

Excellent illustration posted by Dan Sellars of the way that storytelling traditions  have evolved over time to reflect and utilise the technology available

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Eric Schwarz
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Nice article. Perhaps it's my artsy background, but I've never understood the argument that games are fundamentally worse when it comes to storytelling than other forms of media, and, taken to extremes, shouldn't even try. Yes, they are certainly immature and tend to pale in comparison to the best works in other media, but that is to be expected for a genre which is by and large just beginning to get its feet wet with regards to good storytelling... though even then, the obsession with providing better and better graphics has arguably set gaming back to some degree. We have better mainstream titles that appeal to more people, but the cost has been both in deep game mechanics and in strong storytelling.

Bruno Patatas
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Thank you. Yes, I also never understood the argument that games are worse than other media to tell a story. Of course storytelling in videogames needs to be treated with it's own set of rules (mainly because the player is the main character), but it's a totally viable medium to create compelling storytelling. During a long time the main focus in the industry has been better and better graphics, but I firmly believe that we are already seeing a new era in the games industry where story is as much important as gameplay and graphics.

Ernest Adams
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Well said, Bruno. Actually, the claim that "there are no proofs of success in the last 40 years" is a stupid one, rather like Roger Ebert claiming that video games can never be art. There are many, many proofs of success. Rather, there are just some people who will never admit that games have been a successful storytelling medium no matter how many examples you supply, because the games don't meet those people's unreasonable standards. In fact, what their arguments amount to is, "games aren't a storytelling medium because *I* say they aren't."

If the experience feels story-like, it's a story -- whether predefined or procedurally-generated, whether presentational (traditional) or participatory (interactive). A game designer is a designer of experiences. Some game experiences include story-like qualities; some do not. But claiming they *cannot* is just nonsense.

Bruno Patatas
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Thank you Ernest. There are indeed many proofs of success. I remember when I played interactive fiction games back when I was a kid, and oh boy, I was there! I was inside that world! I experienced the same feeling I had when reading a book. And you are right when you say that people use as argument "games aren't a storytelling medium because *I* say they aren't." What is their standard to evaluate that?

Games can be pure brainless fun and can also be something much more evolved with a solid story. Imagine if the TV world had said: because we have 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air', we don't need 'Twin Peaks'! Mad!

Keith Nemitz
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Look for a new kind of emergent narrative, using the concept of Short Story Cycle, in the upcoming '7 Grand Steps'. Keep trying new things, everyone!

Tomi Hanzek
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"Is the “Alvin & The Chipmunks” movie a better storytelling experience than Bioshock?"

This is a ridiculous straw-man comparison. It's quite telling when gamers are forced to fall back on Bioshock time after time as if that game is a masterpiece in storytelling on par with literary classics.

And when people point to the likes of Red Dead Redemption as being the best the medium has to offer, we as gamers are in trouble. Watch the likes of Unforgiven, The Dollars Trilogy or Once Upon a Time in the West and tell me again RDR has any storytelling merit.

I'm all for good stories and storytelling in games, but most gamers need to be reminded just how high the bar is really set and how easily they are willing to cling to anything that even resembles a good story in games.

Bruno Patatas
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No, the Alvin vs Bioshock comparison is perfectly valid in this context, when people say that videogames will never be able to have a deep storytelling like in movies. So is any movie despite being covered with narrative flaws like Alvin better than a well scripted and executed game like Bioshock? And Bioshock was only used as an example. You have countless games with good stories way back since the 80's. Is not something new.

And regarding Red Dead Redemption... Why are we gamers in trouble? Why did you had to compare it with The Dollars Trilogy? That's the problem that the industry has. Always have to compare with the best masterpieces in the other mediums. Now, take a look at the recent Cowboys & Aliens movie. Did reviewers compared it with The Dollars Trilogy? No. It's a good, fun movie with it's own merits. What about all those western series made by Disney in the 50s and the 60s? Where they bad? Where they good? What matters is the story was appropriate to their target demographic.

The quality bar in terms of storytelling is indeed very high, but even movies like Unforgiven were only possible because behind it several other directors and writers did other westerns that allowed the genre to evolve. Storytelling evolves in every medium...

Christian Ierullo
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I actually find the comparison of Red Dead Redemption to the 'Dollars' Trilogy brings up a bit of an interesting and problematic issue with game narratives. I think its a great example of how film narrative is taken for granted and all too often applied to games without much thought.

I agree that Red Dead Redemption is a great game in its own right but the problem is that it is obvious that it takes a lot of inspiration from Sergio Leone. The inspriation isn't the problem itself though, as you can see in film that the western genre has greatly impacted from the spaghetti western (some might argue for worse).

But the western genre is really a genre of tropes, and what we have today are western tropes that are taken for granted. Most of them are common knowledge and are basically expected of the genre. But the thing that I think a lot of people forget is that those tropes were all created in film to tell those stories in film. Film has really created what we know to be the western genre, and all of the western tropes. What people consider a faithful transition into games is really just copying tropes that might not necessarily apply in a different medium.

Is it possible that future western games might consider new tropes based on the strengths of the gaming medium instead of the cliches of western movies most people know.

Again, nothing against Red Dead Redemption, it still is a great game with excellent writing and an enjoyable experience in itself. Just something to consider when talking about western stories as a genre.

Jamie Mann
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I'll certainly agree that it's possible to tell a story in a video-game - but equally, it's important to note that traditonal story delivery mechanisms generally don't work well, for a simple reason: people are generally focused on the gameplay.

In fact, there's a nice analogy involving driving that I think probably deserves to be turned into a full post...

Bruno Patatas
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@Christian There are all type of players, who enjoy games in different ways, that's for sure. Good point!

Jakub Majewski
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I think that gamers ultimately want neither gameplay, nor story - they want the total experience. Sometimes, this experience will be driven by gameplay (any puzzle game), at other times by social interaction (World of Warcraft), and in other cases still, by story (most FPS games) - and even within those terms, there will be huge variation. I mean, "story" might mean real sophisticated storytelling in some games, or it might mean a simplistic but engrossing rollercoaster ride in others.

Come to think of it, it's actually kinda odd how game developers tend to put so much emphasis on gameplay. A few months ago, there was Bulletstorm, which (judging from what I have read, because I did not play it myself) is apparently somewhat interesting in gameplay, but poor in story, and when people complained about its story or its crass violence, the response was "hey, but the gameplay is innovative". That shouldn't actually matter - the game as a whole is the experience, and in many cases, the best experience we can offer the player is a great big first-person movie that almost plays itself. We shouldn't put gameplay before everything else, for much the same reason that movie makers don't put image before everything else.

Jamie Mann
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Aaaand... a couple more points, before I head back under the bridge ;)

"Some of the biggest game publishers such as THQ and Electronic Arts are embrancing Transmedia – telling a story over multiple media using different media to tell different aspects of the story. This means that the big players from the games industry are only recently looking at storytelling and it's possibilities in the same way that Walt Disney has done since the 1920's...! This is because gaming is still quite a young field and game makers have still to master their craft in the same way that artists and filmmakers have been doing for decades."

Transmedia concepts have been floating around for a while - two of the more recent examples are the Matrix sequels (which came complete with game/anime/book/comic spin-offs) and the .hack franchise produced by Bandai, which told a story across manga, anime (series and OVA) and several game series across multiple platforms.

Arguably however, both of these failed to be as successful as hoped. I'd suggest that this was down to several issues:

1) Fragmented storyline - people would experience the story in a disjointed, out-of-sequence fashion as they came across newer media

2) Incomplete stories - a significant problem with .hack was that key storylines from the anime were not resolved at the end of the series; instead, the viewer was expected to pick up the games and novels to find out what happened next, despite the fact that they may not want to play games or read books

3) Cost - again, .hack is spread across 7 anime series, 8 games (and a now-defunct MMORPG), 6 novels and 7 manga series. This is a serious commitment of time and money!

4) Unsatisfying stories - with the focus on parallel storylines, you generally know the start and finish of a given media - for instance, you knew that the main characters Enter the Matrix game would survive, as they were present in The Matrix Reloaded.

All told, while Transmedia is definitely a good way of promoting an upcoming item (e.g. game or movie), I'm not convinced that it can be scaled up to become the main attraction.

Also, regarding Salman Rushdie's comments:

"But it seems to me that in some ways the Internet is the garden of forking paths where you can have myriad variant possibilities offered and at the same level of authority, if you like. So I mean I think that's one of the ways in which storytelling could move. And these games, these more free-form games in which the player can make choices about what the game is going to be, become a kind of gaming equivalent of that narrative possibility."

Getting input from people outside the industry can be good - it may well result in innovation and experimentation - but I can't help but feel that it's generally like a push-bike mechanic making some suggestions on how to improve car design; nominally, the two vehicles serve the same purpose (getting from A to B), but there's fundamental differences in the complexity of the design, the compromises which have to be made and in the way in which they're operated.

In this case, the sort of game-concept he's describing isn't a bad idea - it's essentially the same as you'd get in a tabletop-RPG with a human dungeonmaster acting as guide and arbiter. However, it's not a model which has ever translated over well to the electronic world; we're still several decades (at least) away from being able to offer a computer-based gaming system which can be as flexible as a human-hosted RPG session!

Bruno Patatas
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The examples you refer of Transmedia had their flaws, that's for sure. Although it must be said that they achieved success to some degree. Was the success the creators were expecting? Probably not. But that always happens when you are a pioneer. Then the people who will work in transmedia projects next will be able to evaluate what can go wrong and right in a transmedia campaign.

The case of THQ is very cool. With the Red Faction Armageddon game launch, there’s a SyFy Channel movie, “Red Faction: Origins” that just came out. The movie, which stars Robert Patrick, tells a story of the generation that sits between Red Faction Guerilla and Red Faction Armageddon. There’s also an Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network game called Red Faction Battlegrounds that was released and tells a story set in another part of the timeline. They also plan a six-hour TV miniseries, which will tell another aspect of the story to sit between the Homefront I and Homefront II games.

Only in the last few years the media powerhouse called Marvel is embracing cinema as another key component of their strategy.

Things are starting slowly. People are making mistakes. And that's normal. What is important is the industry as a whole to learn from those mistakes.

Jamie Mann
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Bruno - transmedia suggests that (as with the Matrix and .hack examples I gave above) there's a single story being told through multiple channels.

THQ isn't doing this; instead, they're just presenting separate stories set in the same universe, with little or no interrelation between the stories. This is a model which has provably worked for decades - Star Trek is perhaps the best example, but Doctor Who has successfully done similar across TV, books, comics, radio, film and even computer games.

As for Marvel: they've effectively created a parallel/reboot universe for the movies - the stories these use often actively conflict with the complex and multithreaded plots from the comics. Rebooting a franchise for new media is a well-defined concept, from the new Star Trek movie to the recent Battlestar Galactica revamp. There's plenty of examples of this "reboot" process in gaming, too; the Zelda and Metal Gear franchises are prime examples.

All told, I'm struggling to see how these can be defined as new experiments, when they're based on old and well defined principles...

"Was the success the creators were expecting? Probably not. But that always happens when you are a pioneer. Then the people who will work in transmedia projects next will be able to evaluate what can go wrong and right in a transmedia campaign. "

Unfortunately, it tends to be difficult to take any real lessons away from these sorts of failures, as there's simply too many interconnected elements - and in my experience, people rarely want to admit that their exciting, innovative and radically new approach could actually fundamentally flawed.

But then, I am occasionally a wee bit cynical ;)

Bruno Patatas
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Jamie, a transmedia project does not means that it needs to be a single story being told through multiple channels. It's quite the opposite. It should be different stories, even with different characters, but based in the same common universe. But there must be a document, the project's "Transmedia Bible" that outlines all the story world and characters that live in that universe. That bible is then translated to all the different mediums.

In the case of The Matrix, in my opinion the failed products from their transmedia strategy were... the videogames. If you look at the animation shorts and the comics they worked great! You had the Matrix universe. You had Zion. But no Trinity or Neo at sight. And what's cool is that you had references in the Final Flight of the Osiris that would support some narrative components in the movie Matrix Reloaded.

Transmedia per se is not a novel approach. As i told before, Disney did that. Lucas did that. What transmedia proposes is that the whole multiplatform component is not an afterthought but the foundation of the IP.

Jamie Mann
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Bruno: I think we'll have to agree to disagree on how closely linked the elements of a transmedia project needs to be :) Personally, I still think there has to be some form of direct linkage between the various channels; creating a separate set of stories in the same universe (in both the same or different mediums) is a standard franchise expansion technique. Warhammer is a good example of this, as is D&D.

"What transmedia proposes is that the whole multiplatform component is not an afterthought but the foundation of the IP. "

Mmm. If I was feeling cynical, I'd suggest that the transmedia concept is more about maximising revenue than trying to provide new viewpoints on a given IP ;)

[Anyhoo, I think I've spent too much time thinking about this now, but what the hey! Feel free to ignore what follows...]

Fundamentally, any story-based IP should be translatable to another medium. The issue tends to come from the fact that things which are easy to depict in one medium (e.g. superhero powers in a comic-book, or inner emotional turmoil in a novel) can be extremely difficult to depict in another. As a result, translating IP to another medium can result in significant changes - usually for budgetary reasons, but sometimes because a standard trope in one medium looks silly or highly unrealistic when transposed to another medium - Superman's flying, for example.

Therein lies the problem. If you play to the strengths of the medium, then you get IP fragmentation. If you stick to easily-translatable concepts, then your IP is liable to come across as bland relative to other works in the same medium.

All told, it may well be best to focus on making the IP work well in one medium and look into translating it afterwards!

Bruno Patatas
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Jamie - A good, healthy discussion is always welcome! ;)

I agree with you that ideally a transmedia project has a linkage between the various mediums. Like the Matrix reference I talked about. For me transmedia is about branching storylines based in the same universe, with the same set of rules.

"any story-based IP should be translatable to another medium." - that's true, but sometimes an IP created in a traditional channel like comic books doesn't translates well to other mediums. One example for me is the Watchmen movie. The graphic novel is one of my favorite fiction works, ever! The movie... although I love it, I can totally understand that only someone familiar with the original work can fully enjoy it. That's because Snyder used the same storytelling techniques used by Moore and Gibbons in the graphic novel but in the movie. Because how you read a book is very different regarding how you experience a movie, the final product was flawed. Snyder made the same mistake that a lot of the game industry does. Trying to replicate a storytelling medium in another. That's why games that try to be movies fail in a narrative point of view.

What interest me, more than having established IPs going the transmedia route, is having new IPs being created already as a multiplatform concept. Of course that monetization and revenue is part of the equation. If you want to create a big product you will need the funding to do it. And if it all goes well it will allow you to invest in future projects.

Christian Ierullo
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You know what I find kind of funny? The fact that everyone, gamers or not, seem to think that movies/ literature/ TV etc. are all inherently storytelling media to begin with. There is nowhere in the lore of film for example that states that it must or should tell stories; and our experience shows that it doesn't have to. A medium is a tool for expression and communication, what and how you choose to communicate can differ greatly within a medium and across media.

Film is a popluar example that is often held up to games in order to deride their ability to tell stories by comparison. But a film can be used for commerical, documentary, historical and informational purposes as well as narrative and entertaining purposes. Hollywood is not the be all end all of the medium of film. A TV commercial, documentary, news cast, propaganda and your home video of your little sisters birthday party are all equally film. The same thing goes for literature. In fact neither film or literature were created with the purpose of entertainment, but later evolved to include that expression.

Video Games are no different. We have standard "AAA" titles that are often blockbusters designed to be sensational and entertaining, we have a multitude of indie games that deal with more serious and subtle topics, the serious games movement, ad games, casual games, social games, MMO's etc. There is no law that decrees a medium has to conform to one ideal, and that is really the beauty of it. We give people a template and tools to work with and allow them to express themselves. But in no way does this mean games cannot or should not tell stories. Not all games should, but the capacity and desire is definitely there to build experiences that revolve around narrative. And as some have already pointed out there is historical evidence already showing that games have the ability to do it.

I think it is a wonderful strength of a medium to be able to express something as complex as a story. Once media evovles to be able to do something like that it really shows the rich history, complexity and power avaialbale in the form. I think games have that strength already and as gamers we have a lot to look forward to.

Brian Linville
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I've been a writer and a gamer for a long time, and I'll admit that I rarely read stories in games. I hit "Esc" or the "Next" button as fast as I can to get that damn crap off my screen so I can go back to playing. I'm probably the norm.

Any good writer will tell you one of the hardest things to master in creative fiction is pacing. Dump too much info on the reader too early and you bore them to tears and they stop reading. Do too little world building / character back story / etc, and your reader doesn't get the full impact of what's going on(at best) or feels lost(at worst) and so they stop reading. I think the number one problem I have with story in most games is the designers are not even close to getting this balance down.

I don't want to name names. But you know the games where the characters will sit there with dialogue that seems to go on forever and absolutely nothing else interesting is going on? These long, dry scenes can really slow down the energy of a good adventure RPG.

Darren Tomlyn
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(As usual, all my replies are built upon the foundations of my blog - (click my name) - especially the last post on games and art for this particular reply).

There are a few things that need to be fully recognised and understood, before any arguments about this subject matter can be made.

The first thing that needs to be recognised, is that storytelling is not consistent with the behaviour the word game itself represents an application of.

This means that games are not a medium for, (or form of), art or any other type of behaviour involving telling stories, or stories that are told - (including puzzles and competitions).

What does this mean for this matter? What are the ramifications of this for the arguments made above?

It means that the game itself has nothing to do with any particular matters of story telling. What IS important, and therefore matters, is the actual medium being used - in this case a computer, and the forms of art used as a condition - video/pictures/animation/sound fx/music etc.. These are the media that computers merely use to enable a game - NOT the other way round! Just like pictures are used by a board game to enable the game - the picture still exists as a work of art, even without the game being played.

The one method in which any such forms of art MUST be used, by such media, to enable any game that uses it, is of course to create a SETTING, within which the game itself takes place. Using the setting to tell a story, is the only method which is 100% consistent with it being a game of any kind, since they can always exist together, simultaneously. The next type are elements that usually need to exist within the setting itself, to be used by the players or the game as part of the behaviour itself - the playing pieces. These are generally used by the player to write their own story, and the game to tell a story to the player, and the latter creates the other two types of story telling a game may posses, consistently.

The other types of story telling that are consistent, but optional in a games, are those that are a result of the players behaviour on behalf of the game itself, either in action, or reaction - AI controlled characters etc. as above).

ALL other types of storytelling must, instead, REPLACE the story that is being written by the player, the actual game itself - be interleaved with it - in order to exist, and therefore are no longer 'present' WITHIN such a game itself - again, be it purely works of art, (cutscenes), puzzles (interactive dialog), or maybe a competition - (where the reward/result of the written story is more powerful than the written story itself).

Games are about people WRITING their OWN stories. Some types of story telling (narrative) CAN be used to enable such a thing, but, more often than not, these days, are also used to replace such a thing, too, ALWAYS at the game's expense.

In short - if you want a particular story in a game, and it's not suitable to be part of the setting, then why isn't part of the story the player can WRITE? Otherwise - WHY MAKE A GAME, instead of a puzzle, a pure work of art, or a competition?]

Of course, that's assuming people actually know the difference....

Corne du Plessis
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I doubt the creators of games would say cut scenes, music, dialogue and narrative in general etc are not integral parts of the game as a final product. I think your definition is slightly subjective...

You make a good poin that computer is required as a medium for gaming, and by implication computer generated images. If you remove those are you still playing a computer game? Or are you merely imagining you are?

Brian Linville
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Speaking of transfiction, I write all the transfiction for our up coming MMO and I do all the game lore, NPC creation, story content, and quest design. Hopefully, I can get the balance right. It's called "Origins of Malu" in case anyone's interested.

Corne du Plessis
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An interesting and thought provoking article, Bruno. This is my first visit to your site and I am impressed by the subject matter of the site's articles. The fact that writers and gamers interested in these issues actually exist point towards a positive future for the medium in regards to "narrative".

I have also noticed a recent proliferation of articles related to this subject, and I suspect it's as a result of the recently released Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a game that makes a solid attempt at incorporating narrative and gameplay.

I completely agree with your idea that gaming should be understood as a medium in its own right, with its own formal components and means of conveying a narrative. Integral to this, as you and many of the above comments have noted, is the target market - the gamer. I believe that the reason why the majority of games lack a valuable narrative is because the majority of gamers are primarily interested in action and gameplay. Less are interested in story, and very few consider it to be a prominent part of the gaming experience. I don't wish to compare, but on a side-note, this is also the case for film and literature, given that the majority of films and novels that are popular contain shallow plots, one-dimensional characters, infantile themes, yet a wealth of action.

One of the problems with the story/art debate in relation to games is the modernist sensibility through which these issues are approached, especially in relation to those opposing games as a story-telling medium. These "critics" have enclosed definitions for "art" or "story" and exclude anything that doesn't neatly fit the criteria. Such definitions are deeply flawed for numerous reasons. For example, who decided what constitutes a good story, and why should postmodern cultural products still be roped in under their modern laws? It is pointless to waste further time on this debate. What we should be focussing on is the manner in which gaming has changed the way we view art, and the new elements it brings to story telling, such as interactivity and choice.

Very few can argue that games contain narrative elements in abundance, such as plot and sub-plot, characterization and setting. Even simplistic narratives, as in the likes of the Mario series, contain these elements and must therefore be considered a "story". The question that should be asked is: Are stories in video games of any value? This, in general, is a subjective matter and depends heavily on personal preference and intellectual background.

In my opinion, what makes a story in any medium good is the human value it imparts to its target market - the questions, themes, or ideas it explores about what it means to be human in a specific context. This can range from questions concerning the impact of technology on subjectivity, as in Deus Ex, to questions concerning human morality in often fantastic or alien settings, such as in Planescape: Torment or Mass Effect 2. Gamers interested in story will always take an element of narrative away from games such as these, and even if the change is extremely subtle, it will hopefully change, possibly only slightly, the manner in which they view themselves or society. This, in my opinion, is the value and power of story telling, and although the fairly young gaming industry has not perfected the art yet, the future certainly looks promising.

Bruno Patatas
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Thank you! It is indeed a thought provoking article based on the feedback :)

I think that the comments to the article point towards a positive future for storytelling in videogames.

You made some very good points. If a story is good or not is a subjective matter based on the personal preferences of the player. But that's not something specific to videogames. That happens in all the other mediums too.

Axel Cholewa
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What was Bioshock about, again? Seriously, I don't remember much about it. What I remember is the atmosphere, the anxiety, the Little Sisters and the Big Daddies, and some of the characters. The game is often praised for offering moral decisions, but these moral decisions are either "kill the children for your own benefit" or "let the children live and be rewarded in the end". That's not a moral dilemma, it's choosing between being a nice guy or an asshole.

And RPGs are also not better off than Shooters. Take Oblivion. The game told me that the world is gonna end if I don't stop those evil bastards. I just walked away from the baddies, did some side missions, looked at the landscape and was attacked by a wolf or two. The world still didn't end. Is this a good story? Or good storytelling?

The last game I played with a good story and good storytelling was Portal. The story was good because it was about a girl who escaped from a weird experiment, discovering that she wasn't the only victim by far. This means it was about what the player did, and it used the player's curiosity to tell the story, e. g. by letting him look behind the scenes. The player didn't need to do that in order to beat the game, but I'm sure every player did.

Bioshock's story was not really about a guy finding an underwater city, but about that city and it's inhabitants. The game didn't tell the story of the player, it told a story to the player. So while a lot of players loved the story, I personally can't remember it because I grew tired of listening to those tapes. I wanted to do something. If you do something in Portal, the becomes the story.

So if writers manage to make a story about what the player does, instead of trying to tell a story to the player, we will have games with good stories and good storytelling. I think.

Timo Naskali
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Nice article. I agree with pretty much everything you wrote, except for these words that didn't really sit well with me:

"If you ever shed a tear while playing a game, that was because of the story and not because of a fancy gameplay mechanic."

I think that story and gameplay can (and ideally should) be inseparably intertwined, and because of that this kind of juxtapositioning of the two might not be a good idea in this context. Game mechanics can create dynamics that communicate a story that can provoke an emotional reaction.

Case in point: Passage.

Joshua Lindhardt
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Quoted from Christian Ierullo:
Is it possible that future western games might consider new tropes based on the strengths of the gaming medium instead of the cliches of western movies most people know.


Quoted from Timo Naskali:
I think that story and gameplay can (and ideally should) be inseparably intertwined, and because of that this kind of juxtapositioning of the two might not be a good idea in this context. Game mechanics can create dynamics that communicate a story that can provoke an emotional reaction.


I think these comments address the most important issue in gaming as far as storytelling is concerned. Games that do not try to emulate other media, but rather embrace their own and use it to increase the power of their story, are the ones that are the most powerful for me. A lot of games feel like the story and the gameplay are separate entities, the former tacked on to justify the latter. When the gameplay enhances the story, makes you feel like you were involved in telling it, immersing you in the world the creators have built specifically for you... That's one of the highest achievements in video games.

Joshua Lindhardt