The Art of Storytelling

Roger Ebert said, loosely, that no one has ever written a video game narrative that anyone will remember in fifty years. And I get the feeling he’s right.

Narrative in video games has had a long, curious history; I’m not here to tell it to you. There’s videos, like the one above, which will tell you all you need to know about the topic. No, the question is where narrative in this medium is going, and it doesn’t seem to be going to a happy place, if the people above are correct.

Composing a good narrative is like sticking your hand into a cave full of asps and hoping to pluck out a ruby. Sometimes they’ll bite your hand off, and you get nothing. Other times, you get something, but you’re bleeding all over the ruby. Sometimes, there is no ruby, just asp eggs. And we don’t need to tell you how that works out.

What I’m saying is, narratives are hard. Not Herculean hard, but difficult. And while a lot of video game developers are getting better at it, there’s still a few crucial problems. When there are problems, it is of utmost importance to look at their root causes, and not just say, Interactive cutscenes! Done and done! as it seems a majority of the developers in above video seem to believe.

What is a narrative? That’s the first question. Not a video game narrative but a narrative, any narrative. This is because we are assuming a goal of creating a video game is in telling a story; naturally, Tetris or Bejeweled or Space Invaders doesn’t need this sort of component, but most games intend to tell a story, even if they don’t want to make it overt.

Who’s to say narrative is required for a game? Well, me, for one. Here’s the thing: without a narrative, you are an object that exists in a world with other objects, bereft of any sort of goal or objective. Without a narrative, a game is Chess; with narrative, it is Starcraft.

Once we have narrative, we must break it down to its component parts. What makes up a narrative? Well, a simple analysis will reveal these components in most good narratives:

1.) A plot. A plot is, X goes here, Y does that. It is the quest, the concrete motivations for actions. It is the journey to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring. It is moving to New York City and meeting a man named Gatsby. It is the what. It is the thing that is done. It is first because while it is the least important aspect, it is the part writers, specifically game writers, tend to put the most work towards.

2.) The characters. The characters are the building blocks of narrative. Kurt Vonnegut, a master fiction writer if there ever was one, said that Every sentence must do one of two things: reveal character or advance the action. Characters are the engine of any narrative. They will compel every other portion.

3.) The story. You will ask, But Tom! Story and plot are the same thing! Alas, they are not. Plot is the what. Story is the why. And not just the why of the characters, the why of the creator. It is the moral, the what we learn from the piece. The story is Samwise Gamgee taking the ring from Frodo in Mordor as an act of friendship, of pure filial love. The story, to use a video game example that I love, is why Aeris had to die. It is what can change the nature of a man. It is the aspect least utilized in video game narratives, and unquestionably the most important for crafting a story we will remember.

Those are the essences of a good work of fiction, regardless of medium. There are other components, like the setting and the craft, but those are window dressing. Those are salesmanship. The heart of the narrative is the what, the who, the why. The when and where are distractions; heck, I would say even the what has great potential to distract from the most important element, the why.

Of course, few video games have offered a narrative with this level of breakdown. Most games have a what: the what is what drives us forward, because it is the concrete goal. A scant few games have characters worth caring about, who are balanced and likeable, and even fewer still have an actual story that we will remember.

The thesis here, though, is that no game has been particularly successful at narrative, and some
games have had all these things. Ah, yes. This is when we get to the additional components necessary for a good video game plot.

1.) Integration. The most video game of components. Essentially, video games are different from other mediums in one very specific way: there is someone interacting with the story. Integration is the hardest possible part, the making sure that the gameplay and the story, the plot, the characters do not contradict each other. It’s making sure that Nathan Drake, good guy and family man, doesn’t kill a hundred people an hour without feeling a shred of remorse.

2.) Believability. This is brought up only because it has doomed a number of video games. The problem with narrative is that we, the experiencer, has to believe it. It can take place in a far away, mythic land, or it can take place in a surreal, magical realist tropical paradise, but we have to believe it’s real. We have to believe characters are doing things they would normally do. We have to believe that there are laws that apply properly, both legal and natural. Most difficult for games, we have to have a world where every component comes together to make sense.

3.) Balance. Balance is a what’s wrong with media today kind of complaint, something people seem to have forgotten. Basically, too much of one mode will overwhelm. This is not just in terms of a balance between show and tell, but also in the balance between light and dark. An ultra-serious, always tense piece will eventually not be tense, because there’s no peaks and valleys. A comedy where everything is always laughs will not be as memorable as one that hits you in the gut at the end: this is why most people cannot remember a single Family Guy episode in full, but can remember various episodes of The Simpsons.

So, narrative is complicated. That’s what we need to realize. Narrative is hard to do, in any field, and it’s especially complicated in video games. There’s a good reason why there are so few memorable movies and novels made, and why there’s never been a video game memorable for its narrative. It’s because it’s damn hard to do.

Video games present a curious challenge in their nature. Not only is there supposed to be a narrative, there is supposed to be a whole game underneath it. The second video (embedded above) tells this story. There must be a balance of gameplay and narrative in any video game. On the chart he uses, the games we remember are primarily to the left: Tetris, Super Mario Brothers. You or I may remember specific other games, but we will remember them the same way I remember those terrible Star Wars horror books: they were important foundational items, but uninteresting when you get down to them. Now that we are older and wiser, these things are forgettable. Let me give you an example. Chrono Trigger is my favorite game of all time. I’ve played it, conservatively, 20 times. It’s perfect, and it never gets old. But when I tell my friends, who, in large part, have never played it, they regard it with puzzlement. This is your favorite game ever? they ask, bemused. This is pretty boring.

You can experience this phenomenon yourself. Go fire up one of those great forgotten classic SNES games, Seiken Densetsu 3 or Bahamut Lagoon or whatever, and play them for an hour. If you’re not completely blinded by a fetish for the Japanese or a love of JRPGs, then wow, those games are pretty mediocre (I love Bahamut Lagoon, because I am a Strategy RPG whore, to be honest). I think X-Com is really boring, mostly because I never played it as a child. It took numerous attempts and a developing obsession with Fallout for me to enjoy the original title. And so forth.

Whenever you hear someone say Games were so much better years ago!, this is what they mean. No one’s ever made a video game worth remembering for narrative, and games these days are more plot heavy than they’ve ever been, to the exclusion of story, believability, balance integration, and even characters. The goal of the modern blockbuster is to pen a Nicolas Cage quality super action script with lots of plot and one dimensional characters and then real intense killing dudes gameplay.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but you’re lying to yourself if you think kids in ten years will give a fuck about the original Halo, or about Chrono Trigger, or even about narrative masterpieces like Planescape: Torment. They become dated to those who don’t wear the rosy glasses of nostalgia, and will wither and die like all other not quite masterpieces.

But the problem isn’t just narrative. If it was, then Planescape: Torment would be revered forever as a shining example of storytelling, because it possesses perhaps the most developed, high quality narrative in video games. No, the problem is integration, making the narrative and the game go together. This is the area that is recognized as something of a problem, and spawns the rash of interactive, Press X to not die! cutscenes.

The obvious solution to fixing dissonance between narrative and gameplay is, of course, to make the narrative interactive. Make the fiction interactive. Involve the player in the telling of your story, make him not want to skip pop-up text, and everything will be rosy.

Or will it be?


  1. I like this post! It’s the kind of stuff I feel jealous for not writing it myself. I also like how there is “Camel” written on the mouseover text for the camel picture. Cracked me up.

    Phoenix Wright!
    Phoenix Wright is a game I remember mostly because of plot and character. In fact, I don’t remember squat about how Cousin Vinnie got his case, but I do remember how I crushed Manfred Van Karma. I believe there is no question games can come up with great stories. Sure, most of them are Nick Cage material, but aren’t movies also like this? It’s an issue of time, I believe. In fact, the first movies like Journey to the Moon can be as whimsical as the plumber who raids castles after castles for a princess that is never there. Look at something heralded as a classic like Modern Times, and you’ll find out a fragmented movie (almost like game stages) with a couple of great scenes, not unlike the Andrew Ryan killing or arriving at City 17.

    The problem, however, is not only interaction, but the fact that games are an action-focused media and there is only so much you can do with action. If anything, most games have stories a la Commando. Or Kill Bill Vol. 1 if we are lucky.

  2. This is a brilliant analysis, thank you.

    I find it quite sad, as you mention Planescape Torment, which is an amazing game. It’s just a shame games, as a medium, rarely produce works whose overall story is of worthy remebrance.

    I wrote a similar article and found this echoed my thoughts.