Monday 11 October 2010

Story: What is it really about?

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.

End thoughts
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.


  1. Very surreal, as I was listening to a band I like called Korpiklaani. I think they started off with Sami roots. The Sami have a kind of song called a Yoik that I read about - the idea is to impart into the listener the impression of a place. This is not necessarily done using description - the important thing is to express the feeling/essence of the place. It does not matter that there are 3 trees, it matters how you feel when you see the trees. Is it a lonely place? Or are the trees companionable solace?

    I feel that this is similar to what you are saying, and I approve.

  2. >Peeling an Union
    >Peeling a (Y)Union
    >Peeling an Onion

    I'm guessing it's supposed to be Onion.

  3. Anonymous:
    Sorry :) I will fix.

  4. Very very true. Made me understand a little more why I love your games so much :) Really interesting to read and more people in the games industry need to pay attention to what you guys are saying/doing.

  5. sometimes telling a story means being plot-based.

    a mood-based story can lose itself in it's emotions and fail to accurately reflect the real world. example- princess/hero romance. they HAVE NEVER MET BEFORE yet somehow fall in love. sure, it's romantic, but lacks the impact of the more literal interpretation of akward coffeeshop conversations of a budding couple. or the hero actually courting the princess at all. or having faults. etc.

    realism is not always what you want, obviously, but realism is a component of immersion.

    tl;dr: sometimes over-mooding or over-simplifying the direction of a story can make it seem unreal.

  6. I sort of dislike the suggestion that the majority of people can be using a word wrong (story) but that's extremely unimportant.
    The entire post was extremely interesting, and the first half seems oddly relevant to a lot of things I've experienced today. Such a, today I watched the first episode of Single Father, which I found very compelling. The plot was entirely devoid of creativity, but it succeeded on its atmosphere and characterization. I also archive binged Gunnerkrigg Court, and though the plot is interesting, the feel of the world it creates seems a lot more important. I also ended up having an hour long conversation about plot holes and whatnot in Metal Gear Solid - and yet myself and my friend both concluded that we appreciated MGS's story far more than most (although it relies pretty much entirely on cutscenes). And I'm right now listening to Rasputina's Oh Perilous World, which manages to be about the war in the middle east despite never directly mentioning anything related to it.

    And most importantly perhaps, after reading Seven Lesson Teacher, I had an idea for a story. At the moment, I don't really have a single plot idea or character, but does that mean there isn't any story in my head?
    Also, I haven't decided whether I should try to implement... whatever I come up with as a novel or a game, if it should be the latter the second half of this post will have given me something to think about.

  7. I really like reading the posts you do on this blog, even if I'm not active in the discussions. You guys seem to have the right idea about a lot of things in game design.

  8. Awesome post, I would be really interested in seeing this topic discussed in even more detail.

  9. "I think that just about any essence can be expressed by a virtual world guiding the player using various mechanics….
    I believe that sticking to old fashion cut-scenes is a dead end if we want video game story telling to progress."
    Yes, I absolutely agree! I've always considered the use of cut-scenes to indicate a failure of game design. Granted, often a necessary failure: limited development time and money means that most game developers aren't even going to think about taking the time to invent the completely novel game mechanics needed to replace that cut-scene. Unfortunately, exploring the issue has generally been a low priority for most developers, so only a few have contributed to any real solution(s). Since most game design relies on making small changes to proven mechanics, progress has been frustratingly slow in this area.

  10. Mr. Grip being a genious as usual.

  11. Lovely stuff. In my opinion, games aren't about plots- they're about settings.

  12. To sum this post up:
    Stories are about *ideas* and *world views*, even when it doesn't seem like it.

    For example, Tolkien said that he 'hated' allegory of any kind - thus liberating the reader from thinking about LotR as of an allegorical story that is meant to say something very specific, and allowing the person who reads it to (if only on a subconscious level) be impacted by the underlying themes, thoughts and ideas, that were, after all, distilled from the Tolkien's own experiences.

    Of course, what a story is about can be more or less altered by the reader/viewer, depending on his/hers profile, experience, observation power, etc. Take the Predator movie example - it is true that no scenes of explicit extreme violence towards the villagers are shown, but any viewer even vaguely aware of what evil war is, considering the movie setting, will know that these people *have* suffered horrible things. The viewer can develop a kind of a grudge against the protagonists of the movie, which leads to a great internal conflict that was probably not intended by the director:
    the viewer added a new dimension to the movie - a new onion layer, if you will.

    Regarding the differences among the recipients of the storry, there arises a problem in the gaming industry: how can you make the player *feel* what the game wants him/her to feel?
    The emotion that horror games evoke are concerning the player directly, and that's why it works. But, how do you make the player feel something about someone else, or something else in the game world? This is much harder.
    How do you make the player care about an NPC?
    How do you make the player care about the injustice of a fictional king being unjust and tyrant-like to his own people?

    If you people at frictional have discussed these topics, I'd love to hear your ideas.

    In closing, a quote from the movie "V for Vendetta" - a great film that many didn't get, probably because they never got to know how it feels to fight against an oppressive and irresponsible government (although one must admit the government the movie portrays is rather extreme):

    [after a hail of gunfire doesn't stop V]
    Creedy: "Die! Die! Why won't you die?... Why won't you die?"
    V: "Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof."

    (To anyone who didn't see the movie - it is reveled that V is actually *badly* hurt after this scene. Why he was able to withstand the gunfire? You'll have to see the movie...)

  13. Thank you for pointing out that non-linearity does not immediately equal sandbox. Many people don't seem to get that. But I think your concept of essence explains it very well.

  14. This is really good. There's a lot of stuff that I read in your blogs where I feel like I'm just agreeing with you because I'm already settled in those views but I felt like reading this was instructive and helped shape and clarify some thoughts in my mind that were already there. So thank you.

    I absolutely think you're completely right about this being a strong direction in which games should explore in the future and even if many gamers can't visualise what these would look like at the moment and don't understand why they'd be so good, I'm sure as soon as a few of these games come into existence people will be blown away by them and they'll completely get it.

  15. I was happy to have read this just after playing Flower, which I think is a good, though not perfect, example of some of the theory you're proposing.

  16. "if we want to advance the storytelling of the medium"

    i guess for some people the answer to this question is very obvious. for me, i'm not so sure that is a direction that i'm interested in attempting to "advance".

    indeed, i'm not sure that i'm convinced art forms make "progress" in the same sense that scientists or mathematicians work through problems and arrive at solutions.

    i do think you're correct in pointing out how linear plotting may not be ideal for games, but i'd go one step further and ask if "stories" and "themes" are even compatible with the nature of games in the first place.

    in other word,s is playing a game for the story like eating soup because you like the spoon?

  17. Dojang said: "but realism is a component of immersion."

    I disagree. I think believability and plausibility are components of immersion; more precisely, I think it is necessary to maintain the audience's credulity - once the audience becomes incredulous, you have lost them. There are many examples, but a very good example from the movies is Raiders of The Lost Ark: giant boulders, lost cities, and a hero hanging from a truck by a bullwhip are not realistic, but the movie works so well because it makes these things believable.

  18. and yet, the most game that tend to captivate players - immerse them - tend to be neither realistic, believable or plausible.

    tetris, farmville, super mario bros, street fighter, halo... these are some of the games that really grab hold of people and refuse to let go, but i wouldn't call any of those games believable or realistic.

    maybe a better description would be internally consistent. the rules of those games make sense and don't contradict each other unnecessarily.

  19. Good thoughts here. I've wrote about this subject quite a bit on Gamasutra. If anyone's interested, check these out:

  20. PASTRIES said: "maybe a better description would be internally consistent."

    True but I think your description is in harmony with the word 'believable' if you forget the notion that believable = realistic. If you've ever heard an 8-year-old child chat enthusiastically about Super Mario, you'll know they believe in it.

  21. One thing Ive needed to say about amnesia and this seems a good place to say it. First, I loved it I was scared I was brave I was curious.. then afraid again. and I really felt I gained something within me by the end.
    BUT, one thing that always bit at me was the writing for most of the notes. not a bad story, but waaay to many adverbs, the character writing the note seemed like he was trying to write a book instead of an account of what happens. and even in books so many adverbs can be a cancer. You tried to hard to get across EXACTLY what was being seen in the descriptions which can sound extremely cliche and fake. Didn't take to much away but It broke immersion.

    I say this because I know you can do better if you can see the problem. maybe its just me but I think you should work on that.

  22. I reckon Eve Online managed to still maintain realistic plot events, whilst being open. Too bad that game was filled with exploiters, which really ruined the immersion.

    Have any of you ever read a blog called "Groping the Elephant"? That blog is all about these components and the author of the blog looks at how games have expressed this essence through game-play.


    I felt this way about the notes too, they provide a bit of an alternate atmosphere to be immersed in, but by doing so they jeopardize their realistic purpose. The adverbs were kind of unnecessary, we can already get the idea of what the atmosphere was like before the present events from the flashbacks.


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