Thursday 4 May 2017

Story - What is it good for?

Do videogames really have to try to tell stories? Are they not just better off focusing on interactive systems and gameplay? In this post I argue that stories are fundamental to the play experience by supplying context. This story context is crucial in order for videogames to engage and make the gameplay easy to grasp.

For ages there's been an argument going on about what part stories should play in videogames. Over time stories in games have gained more acceptance, but the discussion still continues. For instance, Ian Bogost recently wrote this article where he asked why you should make a game out of a story when you might as well make a movie or write a book.

This "go write a book instead" attitude isn't new. One of my favorite articles on the subject is Jesper Juul's "Games Telling Stories?". Interestingly, I pretty much agree with all of the points that Juul raises, but reject most of his conclusions. I think that video games are very well suited for telling stories and that there is no inherent conflict. Where I fully agree with Juul is on the argument that if you just take stories as we normally see them on film or in books and apply them to games, there will be a lot of friction. In order to make stories work in games you need to consider them in a different way.

The "go write a book instead" response is usually provoked by the fact that a game's attempt at storytelling disrupts the flow of the game. The most common example of this is when you need to watch some lengthy cutscene before you can continue playing. Problems also arise when juxtaposing gameplay and story gives rise to ridiculous inconsistencies, such as characters that can take hundreds of hits in-game being easily hurt in a cutscene. But this isn't evidence of stories being inherently unsuitable for games, these are just examples of sloppy implementation.

Stories are, in fact, crucial for videogames, and this has been the case almost since the earliest days of gaming history. They provide something vital to the experience: context. You can clearly see this in cabinets of early arcade machines, for instance this one for Asteroids:

The images are there to tell the player: "Those badly drawn circles coming at you are asteroids! Deal with them or perish!" This may be a really simplistic story, but it certainly is one. It gives the player a mental model of what is taking place on the screen, which allows them to intuit the workings of the world and to build a personal narrative. "I barely escaped getting crushed by an incoming asteroid!" is a much more interesting fantasy than simply thinking about the game in abstract. "I made the arrow-shape move out of the way for the incoming polygon thereby avoiding the game's fail state" doesn't come as naturally to us. In fact, it's quite hard to think of events in that manner. Take a look at this video:

You instantly think of the shapes as having intentions and personalities. Our brains are wired to do so, and the cabinet art of Asteroids taps into that. It also raises an interesting question: if humans are so prone to see stories in abstract shapes, do we really need any actual story content at all? This might seem a tempting conclusion, but there are a number of reasons it's misguided. For example:
  • It provides the player with an idea of what the game is about before they even start playing. Explaining Asteroids using abstract systems is non-trivial. Saying "you control a spaceship that has to avoid or blow up incoming asteroids" makes immediate sense.
  • It puts the player in the proper mindset from the get-go. This way we don't have to wait for a bunch of gameplay to unfold in order for the player to shape a suitable fantasy for it.
  • The fantasy is more likely to be coherent with the actual gameplay. If you just leave everything to the player's imagination, there may be later aspects of the game that contradict this, causing big problems as the player's mental model would contradict the concrete implementation of the game's systems.
  • While people are good at constructing fantasies it doesn't mean they don't need any help. Story-based context acts as a very potent catalyst for the player's inherent capabilities. If delivered properly, the result is a much deeper fantasy than the player could have made up on their own.
However this doesn't mean that you need to fill in all the blanks with story context. In fact, by leaving certain bits to the player's imagination the result can be even better. The trick is to know which parts to leave blank and which ones to fill in.[1]

It isn't just shooters with basic polygonal graphics that benefit from story context. Even adventure games, known for their strong story focus from the get-go, have similar roots to that of Asteroids. The first adventure game, Colossal Cave Adventure, started out as a simulation of a cave. In order to make the experience more interesting, Dungeons-and-Dragons-inspired events and puzzles were added to the mix. Again, the story was there to provide context to the basic experience - in this case exploring a cave system. Instead of just randomly wandering through a cave the player was now on a mission to search for a treasure and to avoid dangers that lurked in the darkness. This not only makes the experience more engaging, it also makes it easier to understand.

The case I want to make is that stories are incredibly potent for setting up play. Story is not just optional window dressing. By telling the player a story it makes it much easier for the player to engage. We as humans also grasp problems a lot more easily when they are presented as a narrative [2]. It enables us to use various built-in mental faculties to approach the problems and to figure out solutions. Understanding the dynamics of two factions that are at war comes naturally to us. When you pose the same problem in the form of mathematical equations it might require years of study to grasp the basic concepts involved. Human relationships come naturally, maths doesn't. This makes story context an indispensable part of game design.

Asteroids can get away with a really simple story because it is such a simple game. But games haven't stayed that simple, and as they grew more complicated, the story context needed to become more complicated as well. If you want the player to play as a spy infiltrating an evil organisation, simple polygons and cabinet art will not be enough. You need to add more details to your story context in order for the game's actions to make sense, be engaging, and easy to grasp.

Story isn't just something that has been slapped onto games because videogame designers have hidden desires to be film directors or novel authors instead. They are there there because they are crucial to the end experience. Sure, there are games that have pretty much zero story content - Tetris is a prime example. But these games are also very straightforward and possible to grasp based on very little play time.  The moment you want anything more complicated, story context comes naturally and becomes an ubiquitous part of conveying the game's intentions and forming a coherent experience.

It's similar to how kids play. Give them some sticks and stones and they will instantly use them in some sort of story context. Sure, they could just build stone and stick structures for the inherent enjoyment of it, but it's much more fun to think of them as castles, soldiers and a grand battle taking place. This is inherently human and permeates many more areas than just videogames and child's play. For instance, it's common to show backstories of the athletes before a sporting event in order to make the actual competition more exciting. News reporting also follow a similar pattern. Whatever the area is, the reason for having stories is the same: it provides context that makes the actual activity or content more exciting and relatable.

The idea of stories as context for play is even true for a game like The Walking Dead. In this game the player has little actual gameplay, and most of the time you just sit and watch. However, the hours of cutscenes are really just there to give context to the choices that the player eventually has to make. This might sound a bit weird, but if you think about it from a gameplay perspective it makes a lot of sense. The abstract systems that power the dialog selection wouldn't have much meaning if it weren't for the cutscenes preceding them.

You can even say that The Walking Dead requires the cutscenes for its gameplay to work. The gameplay in this case is simply making selections from a set of options that pop up on the screen. It's quite clear that abstract shapes and some cabinet art will not do the trick here. Your story context must be quite elaborate for the player to intuitively grasp and feel engaged by a simple "select the right option" process.

The same thing is true for games like the recently released What Remains of Edith Finch (which Bogost bases much of his argument around in his article). Much of the content in this game can be seen as the context for the character vignettes that you play from time to time. Without all of the intricate setup that the game has, these playable sections would have been a lot less engaging and harder to understand. In fact, it's actually quite likely that making these vignettes of gameplay was one of the major cornerstones in the game's development process. A similar process was at least true for SOMA. We started the development of it with the intention of making a few distinct scenarios playable. Much of the game was then built around that goal.

So when I say that the cutscenes in The Walking Dead are just context for the choice scenes, I am not just making a silly argument. In many cases, this is really how it works. Obviously, development is by no means this rigid, nor do I think many developers think consciously about it. Reality is always way more messy than theory. But that doesn't mean that this division is untrue. I think it's a really valuable way of looking at gameplay versus story.

It's also really important to note that this doesn't mean that context is just a superfluous aspect of the game experience. The story context can be engaging in its own right, and it is almost always beneficial if it is. But that doesn't take away the fact that the story content is there to provide context for the play. In fact I think it is crucial that we realize this as it clears up a lot of confusion around video game storytelling.
  • Story is not just plot, a sequence of events; it is whatever story content that provide context to the play experience. The setting, characters, themes and so forth all have part in this. In order to create a proper context there may be a need to tell a certain sequence of events, but it is by no means a requirement. This is where storytelling in video games and film/novels/etc. diverge and it is crucial to keep this in mind.
  • When it feels like a game has poor storytelling, it's not the same as it being unnecessary. The question to ask is: "Could there have been a better way to provide story context?". The problem is not that the game tries to focus on its characters, the problem is that the game is bad at providing the necessary context in an efficient and engaging manner.
  • Games are not trying to "tell deeper stories" compared to film or novels. They are trying to provide deeper thematic play. A core part in achieving this is by putting more focus on the story context. This is a very different goal from that of other media and to say "you might as well write a book" is to gravely misunderstand the challenge at hand.
Obviously context and play aren't simply two separate things. Context very often has a big part in influencing what sort of gameplay is best suited to it, and there may even be gameplay created with the sole purpose of influencing a certain bit of context. 

For me the most interesting question at this moment is: when it comes to evolving storytelling in videogames, what is the relationship between context and play? How can we set up context in such a way that it's the play that does the bulk of the actual storytelling?

I think this is a problem in many story-heavy games. There may be a lot of well-told story in them, but it's delivered in the form of cut-scenes, dialog, written notes, and so forth. I don't get to actually play it. This is also where I think seeing story as context comes as handy. It makes it evident that "classical story" in games is not an end goal in itself, but a framework, there in order to enhance the experience of play. To be better at understanding how this works and how to build experiences around it is where I see the future of interactive storytelling.

[1] I will go deeper into this in a future blog post.
[2] Here is a really good example of this.


  1. "Story isn't just something that has been slapped onto games because videogame designers have hidden desires to be film directors or novel authors instead."

    I think I have to disagree with you in this. Many games DO have stories slapped on. Every game that claims to be cinematic does this, as does pretty much every big-budget First-Person Shooter since at least ten years back.

    Besides. If stories are just providing context for gameplay, we haven't come anywhere at all since Asteroids. We've just added technology. Not complexity. Which is what you argue in your previous piece about fun in games. Much of what you do in this piece seems like an attempt to legitimise your own design choices. Which is fine.

    But Bogost's argument is that games are simply not suited for telling the kinds of stories they're trying to tell. Because the height of what they achieve is simply not that great compared to what they're trying to plagiarise. No amount of context will change this.

    Maybe the real question should be: what kind of stories can you ONLY get from a game, that you can't get from other media?

    1. Portal is good example of a story that works BEST as a game. You could write a book or a film about someone solving those puzzles, but it doesn't have much punch when you're watching someone else do it. When you have to use your agency to figure out a solution, and you've endured a struggle yourself, it's far more engaging.

      Similarly, Papers Please is a powerful experience for the player, because it is THEY who must choose which family member gets food today. Even watching a great actor struggling with such a dilemma is not the same as struggling with it yourself.

      In many cases, player agency makes an otherwise fairly unremarkable story really powerful. Journey. This War of Mine. The Walking Dead. Inside. Making the player feel responsible for what happens in the story is something ONLY games can do.

    2. I completely agree with your sentiment, but wouldn't include The Walking Dead. It could easily be a "choose your own adventure"-type book, with the incredibly limited choices it provides.

    3. "Many games DO have stories slapped on. "
      yeah I agree to this too. Should perhaps have made that clear. But I don't even in many of those cases, it is often not all bad due to forcing story, it is simply bad implementation:

      "If stories are just providing context for gameplay, we haven't come anywhere at all since Asteroids. "
      I am not sure what you mean here. :) Why have we not come anywhere?

      "Maybe the real question should be: what kind of stories can you ONLY get from a game, that you can't get from other media?"
      It feels weird to limit ourselves to "stories" in some form of optimal "this is what a story is supposed to be"-sense. I think it is much more interesting to think of experiences you can achieve. For instance, you might think Lord of the rings is much better story as a book, but that doesn't mean the experience of the film is not worthwhile. There may be aspects of it that are much more interesting as film. For instance, action sequences are often hard to do in a novel, but much better suited for a movie.

      Similarly, Edith Finch allows me to be part of these vignettes and feel present. You might be able to tell some aspect of these stories through a book or film, but a film or book wouldn't allow me to feel as present when it happened.

  2. "For me the most interesting question at this moment is: when it comes to evolving storytelling in videogames, what is the relationship between context and play? How can we set up context in such a way that it's the play that does the bulk of the actual storytelling?"

    I think the first requirement to answer this question is to have a clear understanding of the terms "play" and "storytelling". If interactive storytelling is gameplay given narrative context, then how gameplay must be thought of? I had the idea of using the example of chess as a basis to think about gameplay in general.

    In a fundamental level, games are similar to chess; You have a variety of choices that you have to pick up from, and each choice opens up a new set of choices. The important part here is that the chess player does not only see the choices that are currently in front of him, but he can also see the set of choices that will unfold after he picks whether option. The gameplay of chess is based on thinking-forward about these "trees of choices" and pre-plan a certain "path" through them, in order to win.

    From this perspective, all the types of gameplay that are considered as "non-proper" are considered as such because they lack the above structure (e.g. trial and error sections, quick time events etc.). It's also consistent with the idea that much of the gameplay happens inside the player's head.

    1. Or maybe it's better to think in terms of game states. In the example of chess, depending on how you move your pawns, it leads to different game states. Then the opponent will make a move too and that will also change the current game state. As the player, you have to mentally simulate the possible future game states in order to make a series of informed decisions.

      So maybe gameplay can be defined as making informed decisions based on a mental simulation of several possible future outcomes in order to reach a desired end state.


      That theory also explains why adding "dynamic elements" (like enemies) to the gameplay makes it far more interesting. Dynamic elements are less predictable, therefore they increase significantly the amount of possible future outcomes that you have to plan for.

    2. Your theory sounds very close to something I will write about in a few weeks: that the ability to plan is the thing that makes gameplay feel good. Seems you have come to a similar conclusion but from a different direction.

    3. They seem very similar indeed. Since we are on the topic though, I think it's worthy to make the distinction between long term planning (which is possible by having a preset ruleset), and short-term planning.

      In the example of chess, if you could only see the options present in your current turn, you would only be able to plan short-term. But by having a clear understanding of the ruleset, which dictates how both you and your opponent can move, the game allows to do what I call long-term planning, the ability to plan many steps forward.

      That's why types of gameplay like selecting dialogue options or having Interactive Movie style choices only let for short term planning. They lack a clear ruleset that lets you know what you (and the other actors) can do in any given time. You didn't know you could say that until that dialogue choice poped up on the flow of the dialogue. Same for Interactive Movie style options: What you and the other actors can do is determined by the script, and not by a preset ruleset.

    4. "I think it's worthy to make the distinction between long term planning (which is possible by having a preset ruleset), and short-term planning."

      I think this depends a lot on how the game is done. In my own model I don't really separate long and short term as different things. The core thing, what really determines how "gamey" a game feels, is how many steps you can plan ahead.

    5. "In my own model I don't really separate long and short term as different things. The core thing, what really determines how "gamey" a game feels, is how many steps you can plan ahead".

      Yeah that's what I meant to say, but I used the wrong terms.


      Terminology aside, my point is that having a solid understanding of how the game's world works is what makes planning forward possible.

  3. Not really related to games mentioned in the text, but one of the reasons Need for Speed Most Wanted and Carbon are among the most favorite titles in the series is story. Long story short, yes, video games do need stories. It's what lubricates the game, gives it a sense and keeps you going, and also helps the player connect with the game's universe in a way. Good stuff.

    1. P.S. No pun intended in the "long story short" part. :D

  4. I grew to actually hate stories in video games.
    Because gameplay is me seeing what I can do, and story is always someone taking it away for me to sit and listen what he has to say. And I'm not terribly interested for the most part.
    Lore is good though. Lore is awesome. Context is important too.
    Stories are... meh.
    Gameplay is a thing designed to keep me in the game.
    Story is a thing devised to eventually trow me out of it.
    Gameplay is about getting good, story is about getting to the end.
    They clash hard and one of them has to go.

    Also, the idea of "playing" the story is somewhat unrealistic.
    No action in a video game has meaning, unless you can do it multiple times. But if you can - it's gameplay. And if you cannot - it isn't really that much better than a cutscene.

    With all that said, there are games that manage to succesfully adopt large amounts of story content and make it playable.
    I'm talking about TT LEGO games.
    I've yet to figure out how they manage to take three movies and make them into a single playable game, but they do.
    The abilities the characters have are all adopted from the stories, so the story part is almost always fully playable. But at the same time the player is able to switch between the characters at will and use their ablities repeatedly to overcome other obstacles, so that they all become fully functional tools in the toolbox and the sense of control is never lost.
    It's amazing what they achieve in marrying story and gameplay.

  5. Great blog post! Thank you for sharing this, and thanks also to all those who contributed their insights in the comments thread - I learned a lot. _/\_


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