Telling tales: The art of narrative in games

Storytelling is becoming increasingly important in the world of games as the medium continues to evolve. Craig Chapple talks with the industry’s leading writers on where strong narratives can take games in future
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Storytelling in games today is a big deal. Naughty Dog’s critically acclaimed The Last of Us told a gripping story and presented character development and layered emotions on a level rarely seen in the medium.

And it’s not the only blockbuster to focus on narrative. The Mass Effect trilogy’s focus on story and player choice was its key hook, and Skyrim was filled to the brim with rich history and a variety of side stories engrossing the player in its vast world. Numerous other titles such as The Stanley Parable and Gone Home are also pushing the boundaries of storytelling in games.

Not all games focus on narrative, of course. Take Minecraft for instance: the title is about doing whatever you can imagine, rather than leading players down a set path and explaining their surroundings. But for many games it’s becoming increasingly imporant.

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A unique perspective

“I think a larger number of developers are pushing at the boundaries of what game narratives are thought to be capable of, so expectations on game narratives in general is raising, and thus, yes, more importance is being placed on them by developers,” says Dragon Age lead writer David Gaider.

Today, stories in games are told in numerous ways. From the narrow storytelling structure of the Uncharted and Last of Us games, the branching narratives of big RPGs such as Skyrim and Mass Effect, user-generated stories in the likes of Eve Online to episodic stories used by Telltale, a plethora of methods to structure narrative in games have emerged.

But this brings up its own challenges. While TV and film can focus on the characters and the core plot, getting from A to B seamlessly and quickly, games are ultimately about the gameplay, and the journey is a key part of the experience. Where other mediums can skip scenes – when going from the bottom of a building to the top, for example, game players often must go through the entire journey.

A larger number of developers are pushing at the boundaries of what game narratives are thought to be capable of, so expectations on game narratives in general is raising.

David Gaider, BioWare

“In a game, you’re going to have to allow for player agency – the player needs to exert some control over the narrative’s direction, if the game allows for it, and even when that’s not the case, as some games do indeed have a linear flow which more resembles a movie, you’re still going to have to account for gameplay,” says Gaider.

“That has a serious effect on the story’s pacing. Imagine if, during the middle of Star Wars, you had to sit through a half-hour sequence as Luke Skywalker explored the Death Star and engaged in random battles with stormtroopers.

“The interactive nature of a game changes how the story is laid out, and thus the tools a writer has at their disposal. Thus the skills that are needed to create that story are very different.”

Storm in a Teacup co-founder Alberto Belli, whose studio is working on Nero, says the major challenge facing writers is to make the narrative fit the environment and the emotions characters should transmit.

“The reward system is straightforward but when you have to build a game around the narration and not vice versa, you pretty much understand soon why usually the story is a bonus in games nowadays,” he says. “In a game like Nero the biggest challenge is for sure to tie together environment and storytelling.”

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Structuring narrative

Meg Jayanth (left), writer of Inkle’s mobile title 80 Days (pictured above), says the wide spectrum of genres the medium covers means the challenges of constructing narratives for its title and the likes of Call of Duty or Civilization can make it difficult to craft stories for different types of game, particularly when the technologies, structures and formats continue to evolve.

“Telling good stories is hard work, it’s a craft, and like any craft it has to be practiced and honed,” she says. “It’s hard to get really good at telling stories when the way you tell them is constantly shifting underneath you – not impossible, just hard.”

Given the vast array of genres and techniques, is there a best method for telling story in games? Or does it simply just depend on the game and its duration?

Inkle creative director Jon Ingold says while it depends on the game, the most interesting form if storytelling is a “highly adaptable but largely linear story model”. He describes it as similar to what BioWare has done in the past and what his team is trying to do at Inkle.

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“So the broad arc of the story is reasonably constant, but the moment-to-moment experience of the player is extremely flexible, and that flexibility shapes how the larger story plays out,” he says.

He describes the experience of 80 Days, where the story is built into acts that cover distinct themes, but individual stories players encounter can be vastly different.

“No two routes are the same; we have an enormous pool of events and characters to draw on,” he explains. “But whatever you do, it’ll fit together to form the right sort of narrative arc.

“Episodic structure can be useful for containing branchiness and stopping it from escalating, but it’s largely just a business model, I think.”

Failbetter Games CEO Alexis Kennedy (right) says however that there is no best method that exists for telling narrative in games.

“There is a worst method, which is to ignore the idioms and affordances of the medium and take too many cues from films or short stories,” he says.

“But I feel like that was the big lesson of the noughties, and now we’re reminding ourselves that three thousand years of narrative history has given us techniques that we don’t want to throw away. The cliché is that gaming’s looking for its Citizen Kane, but Welles started out in theatre, not film: he brought the lessons of old media across.”

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Branching out

Triple-A games in particular are increasingly offering expansive worlds that let the player interact with the main narrative at their own pace as they take on numerous side quests, all the while generating their own stories that feel unique to them.

Allowing the player to essentially create their own stories brings up a big headache however, and that’s predicting how they might go through the game, and how many branches you can allow for. 

InXile Entertainment recently took the interesting tack of closing off hours of content to players in Wasteland 2 (above) based on their decisions, even turning some side adventures into the main finale. In fact, a fully scripted character right at the start of the game can either join the player’s crew or be left behind.

There is a worst method, which is to ignore the idioms and affordances of the medium and take too many cues from films or short stories. That was the big lesson of the noughties.

Alexis Kennedy, Failbetter

“Every possible branch needs to be written and fully realised, even if not every player sees it, and thus any game which allows for a lot of player choice becomes a much more expensive proposition for a developer,” states Gaider.

“A story which takes someone ten hours to play through could contain 30 hours worth of content, or more, depending on how many branches it contains and follows through on. Thus it’s not a question of encouraging developers to let players make choices in their stories, but whether they’re willing to pay for it. Not every developer is, and not every type of game is going to benefit from it.”

One of the issues that emerges in many modern games is the ability to save and simply reload the game. For example, though the Mass Effect trilogy offers many important decisions, most notably in the Mass Effect 2 ending scenes, it’s often tempting for players to self-sabotage their experience by restarting from a checkpoint, taking away tension and lowering the stakes.

Inxile’s Brian Fargo (left) says back in the days of The Bard’s Tale, players could only save the game in one area, bringing with it a sense of risk to players’ actions. One of the solutions to the persistent ability to save, he says, is to present consequences to decisions much later in the game.

He explains: “I think about the reason why movies are more emotionally pulling you into them. Because even though you know it’s a film, once a character does something, and he dies, there’s no undo button. The director is not going to go ‘just kidding’. That character is dead. Period. And so you’re emotionally attached to it.

“In a game, because you can just hit load instantly, you lose the emotional moments. That’s why there has to be that time in-between, otherwise you’ll never get that.”

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A changing medium

While storytelling in games is evolving down new avenues, it could be argued that narrative is evolving at a much faster rate than the medium itself, which often relies on shooting and killing, as seen in the top triple-A games, and adapting a reason for doing so.

Kennedy says the general problem developers face is that game mechanics are about the same events happening in different ways, while stories are about different events happening.

In a game, because you can just hit load instantly, you lose the emotional moments. That’s why there has to be that time in-between, otherwise you’ll never get that.

Brian Fargo, inXile Entertainment

“Game stories that are closely tied to mechanics tend to be one-note or minimalist, unless the mechanics are big and sprawling,” he says.

“That’s not always bad – a tightly scoped minimalist story can be very effective – but creators often want to push out into more varied directions. One of the reasons we love using text in Fallen London and Sunless Sea (above) is that you can do varied things – and non-combat things. But of course text has its own limitations. 

“I think this is an evolutionary thing. Between developers and players, we already have a powerful and flexible set of shared idioms – I think we’ll be able, as the idioms develop further, to use them to sketch or to signal a greater variety of story.”

Ingold (right) agrees, and says that players’ appetite for stories in games is also evolving.

“I think a lot of games are butting up against the limits of standard mechanics,” he states. “The current models are a bit of a hack, really; they’ve evolved out of shoving a screen of text before each level in Operation Wolf. But right now games are evolving and that’s great to see.”

Despite the difficulties of unshackling games from some classic mechanics engrained in the biggest triple-A titles, the role of storytelling in games is still becoming increasingly important, and we’ll continue to see change over the next few years as the medium develops further.

As Gaider says: “I think you’ll see more developers taking risks, or at the very least realise some commonly-held industry beliefs aren’t as valid as they once were – as gaming permeates popular culture and becomes a more accepted medium, I think it’s just naturally going to mature, if not always gracefully.”

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