Upon hearing the word story, most people probably think of a chain of connected events. For example: "A princess is kidnapped; a brave knight rides to save her; the knight faces a dragon, the knight slays dragon and saves the princess; finally the knight gets half the kingdom and marries the princess". Most likely, one also thinks of even smaller details as integrated parts of the story; the way in which the princess is kidnapped, how the knight struggles against the dragon, and so on.
This is not the right way to think of stories. The chain of events is just the plot, and it is a device used in order to get the story across to an audience. What really lies at the core of the story are themes, locations, emotions, and so on. Pretty much all stories we have heard in our lives have been plot-based, but this is because this has been pretty much the only way of telling them. Now that we have videogames as a widespread medium this is no longer true. Still, the idea that story equals plot remain strong. It is a common belief that when a game becomes less linear, it is less about the story. I do not think this is true and if we want to advance the storytelling of the medium, this view needs to go.
By the Campfire
Humans have been telling stories for a long, long time, well before the dawn of civilization. These stories were not written down, but spread by being told over and over, never repeated exactly the same way. These kind of "camp fire stories" still remain, traveling from person to person, constantly evolving and changing. Yet, while the way the stories are told change, in a way they still remain the same. Anyone who has ever told a story like this knows that you often never know the exact words. Instead, you know of certain important things the story is supposed to "say".
It is very common that you change a story like this depending on your audience. If the people listening do not seem impressed by the hero's strength, you add more details, more events, descriptions and dialog. Your goal when telling the story is not be give an exact replication of how the story was told to you. What you are trying to do is to copy the impact the story had on you and any change you can do in order to accomplish this is a valid one.
The moment you do something like this, you have realized, although perhaps unconsciously, that the essence of the story its not the words that make it up. Instead, the story is about something on a higher level.
Peeling an Onion
When a section of a story is trying to convince the audience how strong a hero is, it is something that exists above the words that make it up. Still, this "strong hero" theme, might not be at the highest level either and simply be a vessel for a yet greater goal. Perhaps it sets up an overarching theme of how even the strong will eventually fall. The levels might not stop even there and eventually the essence of the story might be boiled down to a few essentials. These essentials is what the story is really about. Remove any of these and the structure collapse and the original story is no more.
It is also important to have in mind that some levels might be connected. Something that is at a higher level might not manage to stand on its own. A certain part of the story might be about the hero overcoming overwhelming odds and is meant to provoke sympathy. At the same time it is about the hero being subjected to torture and treated very badly by some people. If you remove the torture part, then what you have left is only two very fuzzy themes and not something that alone can build the story. Thus it is not always so that the important pieces of a story are all on the highest level, but they might spread out in a hierarchy. And while this might actually continue down to the very lowest level, it can only do so if removing the part destroys the story. It is not a way to justify that every single detail is essential.
I think most people already have these layers in their mind when thinking up a story, but then along the way give great weight to the details on the lowest level. This is especially harmful when making games, something I will address shortly. First I must go over what I mean by the essence of a story.
What is the Essence?
One might argue that a certain story is not possible to distill into a few high level concepts. It could be argued that a certain scene must be in a very specific way; that one cannot simply describe it as some flimsy themes. I think this happens if one thinks that the themes must be deep, thought provoking, artsy, or whatnot. This is not what I mean with the essence though and it can be any number of things.
For example take the "attack on the village"-scene in the movie Predator, something I am sure few people would call deep, thought-provoking or similar. What are the high level concepts here? Is it just be boiled down to "mindless violence", "how the civilized world rapes nature" or anything similarly pretentious? Not so. Instead its essence is things like the environment, the oppressing jungle; to have a team of sweaty super-humans storm a village, showing off destruction and gunfighting. At a higher level it is also meant to be fun watching and must keep a certain distance to reality and stay away from certain things (like murdering of innocents) in order to keep the audience entertained.
What I want to show here is that a story does not need to be have some kind of moral lesson, ask an existential question, or whatever deep meaning, at its core. It can be shallow and just for fun. Even so, there is an essence and it is what really matters in the story.
Consider any good book/movie you have ever read/seen. Is it really the lowest level of events and details that made you like it? Was it not the locations it took you to? Was it not the interesting relationship between character? Or the way slowly uncovering a mystery made you feel? I argue that no story, no matter what sort, is not about the exact way in things happen, but about the essence of these events. This is something that is crucial to have in mind in video games, as simply nailing down a few details that satisfy the essence is not enough. A video game is a living, breathing world and the essence needs to be portrayed through the right use of the mechanics (such as gameplay, art, sound, etc).
Stories in Videogames
Actually videogames already use this kind of story telling! For example, first person shooters have not set the exact sequence how people get shot or houses blown up. The thing that matters is that people do get shot and houses do get blown up. Exactly how this happens is not important for the story, only that the essence of the action stays the same.
The same is true for portrayal of environments in most games. It does not matter how the protagonist traverse or interact with it, the designer simply constructs a world and the rest is up to the player. By setting up the mechanics of the game a certain way, the designer then pretty much guarantees that the player will have a specific kind of experience and that the essence is kept intact.
However, this how far it goes in most the games today. Once a videogame gets to trickier parts of the story, lower level details are given more and more importance. When it comes to concepts like love, betrayal and grief, pretty much all current games rely on a specific set of events, a plot, to convey them. No longer does it consider the essence of the story. Instead, it becomes focused on the low-level details. Take God of War as an example. There is no need to have cut-scenes showing how angry and prone to violence Kratos is - the gameplay does this for us. But when it is time to bring up other emotions, like showing the reasons behind his rage, the game resorts to plot-based cut scenes.
This does not have to be the case. I think that just about any essence can be expressed by a virtual world guiding the player using various mechanics. This can be conveyed just as good, or perhaps even better, than what a carefully planned plot is able to. I believe we are already seeing this with deeper themes such as a fear. As has been proved by games like Silent Hill*, over ten years ago, video games can be used to provoke fear in a way that is impossible to do in any other medium. While certain kinds of horror lends itself extremely well to the video game medium, I see no reason why other emotions and themes can not work just as well. There are of course also games like Fallout and Shadow of the Colossus that touch upon other themes without using a plot, giving a glimpse of what could be achieved. However, this is just the tip of an iceberg and videogames as a story telling medium is still far from where it could be.
Abandoning plot and a linear progression does not mean that one is creating a sandbox game. It simply means that one picks out the essence of the story and design a virtual world that delivers just that. I believe that sticking to old fashion cut-scenes is a dead end if we want video game story telling to progress. Instead we need to look at a higher level, figure out the essence of our stories and focus on that. When this way of creating a story reaches into areas previously reserved to films and books, storytelling in game will be a force to truly reckon with.
* A major inspiration for Silent Hill was the movie Jacob's ladder, and this serves as an excellent example of how to take the essence of a story and putting it in a different medium. Compare the movie's hospital scene to the otherworld found in Silent Hill and you will find there is a remarkable keeping of its essence. The feeling of being trapped, the environment, the sound design, the uncertainty of what is real and even the style of music. Silent Hill shares very little in terms of low-level plot details with the movie, and yet they manage to be remarkably similar.